Guests: Larry Johnson, John Q. Kelly, Chris Mourtos
ALEX WITT, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
Summer of terror? Two propane trucks go missing in Texas prompting immediate response by the FBI.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These trucks could be very, very large bombs and we‘re very, very concerned about it.
WITT: A brief terror scare but exactly who else should be very, very concerned?
A horribly ugly custody battle ends in this. Why were this woman‘s 4-year-old twins torn from her? Why was the man who abandoned her during pregnancy now have full custody? And why did it all happen in front of cameras?
Oh, no. It‘s not ladies night: Sorry to disappoint you, Jersey girls, but one Jersey guy says it isn‘t fair. And a judge actually agrees.
And we know gas prices are out of control, but this is ridiculous!
Don‘t worry, no one‘s hurt except that poor innocent gas pump.
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
WITT: Good evening and welcome to COUNTDOWN. I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith, tonight.
Eight months ago, he speculated that the source of the CIA leak might never be found. But, tonight the president‘s skepticism hasn‘t stopped him from seeking out legal advice. At No. 5, news that the president has consulted a private attorney to help him navigate the investigation into who leaked the name of a covert CIA operative. She was first known as Ambassador Joseph Wilson‘s wife, but Valerie Plame cover was blown after someone in the White House leaked her secret identity to columnist Robert Novak. A leak that Ambassador Wilson argues was pure retaliation after he exposed one of the president‘s weapons claims on Iraq to be false.
In a moment, we are going to consult former CIA Agent Larry Johnson to figure out what this all mean, first, the details behind this headline. The White House now confirms that the president has put private attorney Jim Sharp on, quote, “stand by,” but the reasons he needs private counsel remain unclear. The “Associated Press” reports that a White House deputy deflected questions about whether Mr. Bush has been asked to appear before a grand jury now investigating this case. But the same White House source did provide this rationale for seeking private counsel, quote, “The president has said that everyone should cooperate in this matter and that would include himself.”
So just what does the president‘s legal maneuver mean and what can it tell us about this investigation? Joining to us make sense of this is former CIA agent, Larry Johnson.
Good evening, Larry.
LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER CIA AGENT: Hi, Alex.
WITT: Larry, we know that some of the president‘s top aides have been called before the grand jury, but up until now, the president has not been implicated at all in this leak. Could this news change all that?
JOHNSON: I don‘t think so. What‘s most likely behind this is that the prosecutor driving the investigation is going to make sure he doesn‘t leave any stone uncovered. So he‘s going to turn them all over, look under all the rocks. I‘d be very shocked if Bush actually was in the know on this from the outset. I‘m not shocked, though, because I‘ve heard from people who I have a lot of confidence in, that there were senior folks in the vice president‘s office that were involved with this effort to out Valerie Plame.
WITT: All right, you talk about the vice president, but we want to be specific relative to the president. Is it possible that the president‘s tops aides could have been involve in this kind of leak without his knowledge?
JOHNSON: Yes. Unless they‘re completely stupid. And I—you know, and I don‘t think Carl Rove and folks like him are just ignorant, now because you have to insulate the president and there are certain things you don‘t want the president to know. With that said, Alex, President Bush dropped the ball right after that revelation came out. Because he should have called a meeting of all the senior people and said, I want to know who did this and I want your resignation tomorrow. If he would have done that, this thing would have been dead and over, but unfortunately, they haven‘t learned the lesson in Washington that what usually gets you is the cover-up.
WITT: OK, so Larry, what is your take on this lesson tonight? I mean, as we said at the beginning of this newscast, eight months ago Mr. Bush was pretty dismissive of the investigation saying, we might never find the source of this leak. So do you think this is an indication that his attitude has changed?
JOHNSON: Yeah, well, what changed was when the prosecutor from Chicago was appointed. He really shook things up. Before they thought John Ashcroft was going to stay in charge and could have insulated the president, once it got out of Ashcroft‘s hands into the This guy is a straight shooter and he‘s going to go wherever the leads take him. And I think Bush is now facing the prospect that he‘s going have to have legal advice because I think it‘s almost certain that he‘ll be receiving some questions before the grand jury.
WITT: All right. Former CIA agent and straight shooter, yourself.
JOHNSON: Thanks Alex.
WITT: Nice to see you. Thanks so much with.
And with the leak investigation and questions over the rational for the war in Iraq looming, the president stayed the course. A day after a new Iraqi government was announced; Mr. Bush issued a bold defense of the administration‘s war on terror. Comparing his wide-ranging campaign against terrorism to the allies‘ fight during World War II. Mr. Bush also found echoes of the wars beginning September 11.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the United States. We will not forget that treachery. And we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITT: But, when it came to talking about the upcoming D-Day anniversary, the president‘s parallels fell short. Quoting General Eisenhower‘s famous “Order of the Day,” Mr. Bush left out an entire sentence of Ike‘s original message.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: “Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the allied expeditionary force,” he wrote, “the eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITT: Now, the key phrase he left out, you can see here in italics:
“You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months...”
It is an omission that is sure to be duly noticed in France where officials are apparently not so receptive to the president‘s historic analogies. The British based paper, “The Guardian” reports that French officials have issued a warning to Mr. Bush to avoid drawing any comparisons between D-Day and the invasion of Iraq. They‘re apparently concerned that any comparisons between wars could stoke anti-American sentiments in France.
And Mr. Bush may come face to face with those sentiments this weekend.
Demonstrators plan to greet him when he arrives in France.
And for more on all of this weekend‘s D-Day events, you can tune in for a special edition of COUNTDOWN airing at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.
In World War II, we had a compulsory military draft. Today, the brave men and women of our armed forces are all volunteers. Or are they? New orders from the U.S. Army will bar tens of thousands of soldiers designated to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan from leaving the service, when their current commitments end. Lieutenant General Franklin Hagenback, the Army‘s personnel chief said that this quote “stop loss order is open ended and could be in place for several years while the Army reorganizes itself into smaller, more interchangeable units.” Among the first units to be affected are National Guard Brigades from Louisiana, Idaho, and Tennessee.
As for civilians in Iraq, five of them are currently hostages and their situation has been displayed on Arab television. “Al-Jazeera” aired this video today of three Italian men abducted in mid-April. One of them addressed the camera, said the date was May 31 and that they were being treated very well. However, a fourth man kidnapped with them was executed shortly after they were taken captive. A militant group called the “Green Brigade” has claimed responsibility.
In a second tape, two truck drivers, one Turkish, one Egyptian, are being guarded by masked men with rocket propelled grenade launchers. One of the masked men said, the drivers were captured while delivering supplies to the U.S. Army. The militants add that had the two men would be treated in accordance with Islamic law and that everyone else found assisting the Americans would quote “meet same fate.”
Back at the U.N., China, Russia, France, and Germany call for major change to the U.S.-British draft resolution on Iraq. The revisions would give greater authority to the interim government and could limit the U.S.-led forces mandate to January of 2005. Now the interim president, Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar said that while Iraqis see the need for outside troops, they want to have the right to ask that these forces leave. They also want control of the Iraqi armed forces, the security forces, and revenue from oil sales. While the U.N. tries to hammer out exactly who will have control of what on June 30, one former U.S. ally will likely play no control at all. NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell reports.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today U.S. officials call it a devastating betrayal that Ahmed Chalabi gave Iran one of America‘s most precious intelligence secrets, that the U.S. had broken Iran‘s intelligence code. Officials describe spy yarn right out of a John Le Carre novel. Chalabi told Iran‘s top spy in Baghdad he‘d learned of the code breaking from an American official who had had too many drinks. The Iranian agent immediately informed his bosses in Tehran using the compromised code, possibly to see how the CIA would react. It was an immediate tip off to Washington that its secret was blown. Officials say they have lost a gold mine information about Iran‘s support for terrorism.
ROGER CRESSEY, NBC TERRORISM EXPERT: Could it engage U.S. military, the U.S. civilian, and U.S. intelligence operatives. Not just in Iraq, but around the world.
MITCHELL: Chalabi, the controversial exile leader whose Baghdad home was raided two weeks ago by coalition authorities, today called the charge “stupid.” In Baghdad, his spokesman Hiderow (PH) Musawi:
HIDER MUSAWI, CHALABI‘S SPOKESMAN: It‘s absolutely untrue.
MITCHELL: But, NBC News has learned the FBI is doing interviews and using lie detector tests to find out who, in a very small circle of U.S. officials, told Chalabi the U.S. was eavesdropping in Iran and who leaked the investigation to the media. Chalabi, until last month, a White House and Pentagon favorite, was even a Bush family guest at this year‘s State of the Union Address. But, he was also a favorite in Iran. Because of that relationship, NBC News has learned, for years the State Department paid as much as $37,000 a rent for Chalabi‘s Tehran offices. Still, Chalabi told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”:
AHMED CHALABI, IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS: We have had many meetings with the Iranian government, but we have passed no secret information, no classified documents to them, from the United States...
MITCHELL: Tonight, Chalabi still has a few defenders in Washington.
RICHARD PERLE, FMR. PENTAGON ADVISOR: There has been a campaign of vilification to smear Ahmed Chalabi by his long-time detractors, principally at the CIA.
MITCHELL (on camera): U.S. officials say the only saving grace is that Iran has many codes. And they still not know which the U.S. is monitoring.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.
WITT: COUNTDOWN under way with our fifth story tonight: Politics at home and abroad. Up next, Scott Peterson‘s reason for his shifty behavior after his wife‘s body washed up on the shoreline: “The media made me do it.”
And later, two young kids caught in the middle of an ugly and unusual custody battle played out in front of the cameras.
That story ahead on COUNTDOWN.
WITT: Up next, the trial of Scott Peterson: The defense paints him as a loving husband and father-to-be, while the prosecution put up its first witness. Our No. 4 story on the COUNTDOWN is up next.
WITT: In a strange juxtaposition of jurisprudence, Martha Stewart made another appearance in court today. Not in New York, but in Redwood City, California at the trial of Scott Peterson.
Our No. 4 story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight, day two of the Peterson trial and it began with opening statements from defense attorney Mark Geragos, during which he played a clip of Martha Stewart‘s TV show to illustrate consistencies in his client‘s statements. One, when he last saw his wife, she was watching a cooking segment on the show. It was just one of many points Geragos tried to drive home to the jury. MSNBC‘s Jennifer London is in Redwood City and has been covering this case.
Jennifer, good evening.
JENNIFER LONDON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Alex, good evening.
The defense coming out strong today calling the prosecution‘s case “flimsy and circumstantial.” Mark Geragos spending a lot of time, this morning, poking hole in specific things the prosecution brought up yesterday. For starters, the prosecution saying Scott Peterson did not want to be a father. The defense, Mark Geragos saying this is absolutely untrue; Peterson was thrilled about becoming a father. He went to everyone of Laci‘s doctor‘s appointments. He even helped build the nursery.
Then there was the point the prosecution brought up about Scott Peterson getting ready to flee when he was arrested in San Diego. Geragos saying, Peterson was in San Diego to visit his family. He had just paid taxes. He paid his car insurance. Why would he do those things if he was planning to run? And the reason that Scott Peterson had his brother‘s driver‘s license, well, Peterson was playing golf and if you have a local I.D., you play cheaper green fees.
Now, Geragos also talked about baby Connor, saying this baby was born alive. Geragos saying, the evidence show that this baby lived beyond December 24, 2002. Therefore, Scott could have nothing to do with the murder.
And Amber Fry, the prosecution spent a lot of time talking about the serious relationship between Peterson and Amber Fry. Geragos today saying, look, all told, they had four dates. Why would Peterson kill his wife and unborn child for this woman? Now after defense opening statements concluded, Alex, we did hear from one prosecution witness, a housekeeper for the Petersons.
WITT: All right, Jennifer. We‘re going to be watching very closely.
And thank you for doing so for us from Redwood City, California.
We have now heard the opening salvos from both sides in a case which has, somewhat against conventional wisdom, proved to be anything but cut and dried. I‘m joined now by John Q. Kelly, a civil litigator and former prosecutor who successfully tried the civil case against O.J. Simpson.
John, nice to see you. Good evening.
JOHN Q. KELLY, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Hi Alex, how are you?
WITT: I‘m well, thanks.
WITT: I hope you are, too. Mark Geragos made his first impression on the jury today. His client clearly not winning the battle of public opinion. But, do you think he made compelling arguments to those 12 men and women on the jury?
KELLY: Well, the one thing he did right away was attack the credibility of the district attorney in the opening statement with the—of all things, the Martha Stewart meringue comment. You know, he showed that his client had been consistent; he was able to display that visually in front of the jury that the district attorney had right away made an mistake in the opening statement. And you know, when you‘re prosecuting a case, you don‘t want to lose credibility on the very first day, the first time you address the jury. And Geragos was able to do that.
WITT: You know, John, a lot has been made about this case being circumstantial. But as Keith mentioned for all the COUNTDOWN viewers yesterday, there may be up to 500 prosecution witnesses, 40,000 pages of evidence to come? Circumstantial or not, that is a pretty big picture. So, how does the defense overcome all that volume?
KELLY: Well, I mean, I think it would be a defense dream if the prosecution actually did call 500 witnesses. Because the more witnesses you present, no matter what, you‘re going to have more contradictions. I think you‘ll see between 50 and 60 witnesses. A lot rather short witnesses, like the first one today. And as long as the district attorney keeps her eye on the ball, they can present a very compelling circumstantial evidence case. They have motive, they have opportunity, and they have consciousness of guilt displayed by Peterson after the fact.
WITT: John, you may have heard Jennifer London just reporting this point, months and months of this ahead, but the testimony of the maid today, going over, basically what amounts to minutia in what she did clean, with what products. Do you think there‘s going to be any kind of one of these, “aha!” moments? I mean, could Peterson himself, take stand or can we expect it from Amber Fry‘s testimony?
KELLY: You know, the only real moment would be if Peterson himself testifies. Even Amber Fry‘s testimony is not going to be what it‘s going to be built it up to be. We know what she‘s going to say. She actually doesn‘t even to have testify. The compelling evidence is the taped conversations between herself and Scott Peterson, more so than what she has to say that wasn‘t recorded.
WITT: John, what do you see as being the biggest hurtle here?
KELLY: For the defense?
KELLY: I think the fact that the last time Laci Peterson was seen alive, she had on light-colored pants and a sweater that several people described to the investigators right after she went missing. She was found in that same outfit months later. So clearly, she was last alive the 23rd and not the 24th when her husband claims. And clearly the other big factor is the fact that, you know, he went fishing 90 miles away and low and behold, that‘s where the bodies of his wife and unborn son surfaced.
WITT: All right. John Q. Kelly, civil litigator and former prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson civil case. Thanks a lot for being here, tonight.
KELLY: Great to have you here, Alex.
That wraps up our No. 4 story: Defending Scott Peterson.
Still to come, the stories that make sit up and say wha-ha? “Oddball” is next.
And later, why these populated states in the nation say it needs all the Homeland Security funding that it gets. That story is coming up on COUNTDOWN.
WITT: I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann, and we pause the COUNTDOWN now, for the collection of strange stories and cool video that get no number, but it would be just wrong not to do them. Let‘s play “Oddball.”
And it‘s more scary than odd, but no one was injured. In Chicago early this morning when an out of control driver slammed into the self-serve lane at an uptown Shell station. He must not like these crazy gas prices, huh? As the pumps explode, the driver of the SUV backs up then speeds away in his flaming vehicle. He has not been caught. Meanwhile, a taxi driver sitting in this cab nearly escaped out the passenger door of his car. He was unharmed. The cab, as you can see, a total loss.
And speaking of total loss, look on the bright side, ma‘am. Now you‘ve two houses or at least a separate in-law apartment. Homeowner Beverly Wolf was enjoying supper last evening in the kitchen of her Kennesaw, Georgia home when the 180 foot crane, that was moving trees around in the backyard, fell over and sliced her house in half. She was not injured, though she watched the giant arm crash through her living room 10 feet away. Good thing, too, because they might have tried to push the two pieces back together and hope no one noticed. But, the crane company says they will pay for the damage and Miss Wolf, a nurse, who says she‘s taking it all in stride, will likely be living in the big half for a while.
To Houston, Texas, all was normal today, along busy streets around the Galleria Shopping Center, well, all except that one thing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Twelve o‘clock in the middle of the day, that‘s kind of like the last thing you expect, is some guy walking down street stark naked.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITT: Yeah. His name is Brandon Weeks. Although at the time he claimed to be Jesus Christ. He was spotted walking naked along the popular shopping area around noon and when police tried subdue him, he fought so much that passersby had to jump in and assist. One witness, who helped, said that the hardest thing was that he was so slippery, quote, “There was no pants or nothing to hold on to.” Weeks was taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. And that witness took a shower.
But did you notice the shape that guy was in? Not bad. And maybe it‘s because he was walking.
A new study from the University of British Columbia‘s Obvious News division says that people who spend more time in their cars tend to gain weight faster than those who walk more. The study looked at people who lived in suburbs and were forced to commute by car to work as opposed to those who live in areas they can walk. Each hour spent in the car per day translated to a six percent greater chance of obesity. Of course, trying to walk that distance to work translated to a 10 percent greater chance of being hit by a car.
Back to the COUNTDOWN and our third story, tonight: How much money does it take to defend America? And are some states getting too much money at the expense of higher targets?
And later, why a civil rights ruling means lights off for ladies night at a New Jersey bar.
Those stories ahead, but first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3
Newsmakers” of this day:
No. 3: Twenty-three-year-old Jason Grisham of Clarksville, Indiana. Authorities haven‘t determined exactly why Mr. Grisham decided it would be a good idea to climb up the side of an electrical tower, but they know he received a 69,000 volt shock and survived. Seven thousand customers lost power. Police said Grisham suffered intensive burns and, quote, “his pants appear to have exploded.”
No. 2: Zachary Lee Foust of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was arrested and charged for breaking into a car to steal items from inside. On the trip to jail, police say Foust stole the arresting officer‘s cell phone. They caught him when his shoes started ringing at the booking.
And No. 1: Carla Patterson from Hampton, Virginia. Police have charged her with trying to extort money from a Cracker Barrel restaurant by claiming she found a dead mouse in her vegetable soup. She demanded half a million dollars from the restaurant, but an autopsy on the mouse revealed that little fellow did not drown, he was not cooked; he died of a head injury. Police say Patterson brought the dead mouse into the restaurant, put it in her own soup, and screamed bloody murder.
WITT: And welcome back to COUNTDOWN. I‘m Alex Witt, sitting in for Keith tonight.
At any other time, it might have barely raised eyebrows, two propane trucks stolen from a Texas parking lot, not exactly a surprising story when the lines for $2 gallon gas wrap around the block. But, on this day, exactly one week after the FBI director and attorney general warned that this could be a summer of terror, those missing propane tanks not only made the news. They made an FBI alert.
At No. 3 tonight, with the warnings ever vague and now seemingly ever-present, just where should we be looking for threats?
NBC‘s Jay Gray starts us off from Dallas.
JAY GRAY, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The two propane trucks were stolen from this San Antonio gas company over the holiday weekend.
TYRONE POWERS, SAN ANTONIO POLICE DEPARTMENT: They gained entry into the lot by cutting a hole in the fence. We know that they didn‘t break the glass, very professionally done, how they got and took the trucks out. They took all the evidence with them.
GRAY: That precision and the highly explosive cargo, nearly 6,000 gallons of propane gas, piqued the interest of federal agents, who were concerned the stolen trucks and fuel could fall into the wrong hands.
PATRICK PATTERSON, FBI: What keeps us all awake at night is that someone would take one of these cylinders or the gas trucks and detonate them in a populated area. That‘s what keeps awake at night.
GRAY: Terrorists have used tankers in several previous attacks overseas. That‘s history is one reason the FBI issued a nationwide alert. But agents and police were also quick to point out, this quite possibly could be a simple case of two stolen vehicles.
POWERS: The close proximity we are to Mexico, we‘re kind of accustomed to large equipment being taken here in San Antonio and going across the border.
GRAY: And that apparently is what happened. Late Wednesday, sheriff‘s deputies found the stolen tankers near Laredo, just miles from the Mexican border.
Jay Gray, NBC News, Dallas.
WITT: And from the Lone Star State to what may be the loneliest state in America. With just half a million people, Wyoming doesn‘t exactly seem like your typical high-profile terrorist target. But that state is getting more counterterrorism money per person than any other in the nation.
And, as NBC‘s Pete Williams reports, that put Wyoming on the map for New York City‘s mayor.
PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wyoming, a former governor once said, is a land of high altitudes and low multitudes, the least populous state in the nation. But it gets the most per person in basic homeland security grants, almost $38. California, No. 1 in population, with dozens of potential terror targets, ranks dead last in per capita homeland grants, barely $5.
New York state gets slightly more. And with landmark buildings to protect, critical tunnels and bridges, and intelligence suggesting a continuing terrorist interest in Manhattan, citing those figures, New York City‘s mayors said the funding formula makes no sense.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG ®, MAYOR OF NEW YORK: This isn‘t a pork barrel thing, where you‘re just trying give people money. Congress supposedly is trying to make this country safer. And if you want to make it safer, you put your resources where the threat is.
WILLIAMS: But, in Wyoming, state officials say they have their own vulnerabilities, an Air Force ballistic missile base, two cross-country railroad switch points, and some of the country‘s most productive coal mines. Wyoming security officials say they‘re spending more since 9/11, too.
LARRY MAJERUS, WYOMING DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: With the low population in the state, we may have gotten the most per capita, but we also got the least amount of money total bottom line dollars in the nation.
WILLIAMS: So why does it work this way? Because when Congress set the form lark, it guaranteed every state a minimum share of the money, regardless of population or threat.
(on camera): But Homeland Security officials insist the numbers cited by New York City don‘t tell the whole story. They say you have to add in a whole new program that sends money only to higher threat areas.
(voice-over): Factoring that in, California gets $23 a person, New York $33. That still leaves Wyoming with more per person, $98 dollars, but it‘s a smaller gap. And Congress is now considering changing the formula still further to take more account of actual threats.
Pete Williams, NBC News, Washington.
WITT: Joining us now to talk about where we should be putting our counterterrorism dollars Saudi FBI veteran Chris Whitcomb, now an MSNBC analyst. Chris also has just come out with a new novel, a counterterrorism thriller. It is called “Black.”
Hi there, Chris. Good to see you again.
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB, NBC ANALYST: Hi, Alex. Nice to see you.
WITT: Wyoming certainly not the only state with missile silos, Chris, so let‘s take look at some of the other states that are housing our nuclear weapons arsenal. Take a look at this map. We‘ve got Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, not the most populous states. But do you believe they are targets?
WHITCOMB: No, Alex.
Look, these missile sites are some of the most secure real estate on the entire planet. They were prior to 9/11 and they remain that today. They don‘t need this money. They‘re already protected by the military, which is another budget entirely. This is really a shrewd attempt I think on the part of Mayor Bloomberg to demonstrate that New York needs more money because they are such a visible target.
But when you look at it in reasonable terms, Wyoming gets a very, very small amount of money. They just have a very, very small amount of people to divide it among.
WITT: OK, but, Chris, nuclear is one hell of a scary buzzword. So you think that groups like al Qaeda are even eying nuclear missile silos or is that more of a Cold War-era threat?
WHITCOMB: Look, Alex, it is a Cold War threat. Terrorists are criminals. Criminals, like anybody else, they want the path of least resistance. They want to get more bang for their buck.
They are much more likely to take a car bomb full of fertilizer and fuel oil and drive it into someplace that is not guarded by the police and military. They‘re going to get the news coverage. They‘re going to get the impact and they‘re going to spread fear, which is really what they‘re all about.
They are not going to go into a missile silo that is built to withstand a nuclear strike and is actually guarded by military personnel. It just doesn‘t make a lot of sense.
WITT: OK, I want to get back to your point about Mayor Bloomberg. He argues that New York should get the lion‘s share of this money. But is there a risk that we could put all our eggs in one basket, thereby leaving other potential targets vulnerable?
WHITCOMB: Well, I think there‘s always that risk.
But, look, the people that assess the risk also allocate the money. And they have a pretty good handle on it. When it comes right down to it, we have exposure in things like universities, research laboratories, power transfer stations, fuel repositories all over the country. They know where these are. They‘ve taken them into consideration. New York is a special threat. They‘ve been hit twice in the last decade. And they have a very high exposure.
So I agree with Mayor Bloomberg on some terms, but I think we can‘t lose track, as you said, that we have many other targets around the country. And they all deserve some of this money.
WITT: Chris, are there any other places out there that we would be, well, surprised to find out are actually terrorist targets?
WHITCOMB: Oh, there‘s no question, fuel repositories, for example, that I just mentioned.
But I think what would surprise people most is that universities in most large metropolitan areas, but certainly within every state in the Union, I would say, have biological weapons—not weapons, but they have biological programs, some chemical research programs and certainly nuclear, small nuclear reactors that are vulnerable. They don‘t get a lot of attention.
You can find information about them on the Internet and other sources. And I think terrorists probably would go there first, because they are not very well protected, certainly not on the level we see some of these other facilities.
WITT: All right, terrorism expert Chris Whitcomb, many times for your time tonight and good luck with the book, “Black.” Appreciate it.
WHITCOMB: Thank you.
WITT: In the lawmakers‘ complicated calculus, Wyoming may come out on top, but the new agency created to hire the nation‘s airport screeners could find itself left out of the equation.
Leading congressional Republicans are now waging a campaign to scrap the Transportation Security Administration. The agency created after 9/11 has hired over 60,000 airport screeners. But it has come under repeated criticism for failing to perform background checks on new hires and then downsizing the work force. Some House Republicans now want to return the job of airport screening to private security companies.
And fashion consultants may be the only one who can rescue the federal air marshal program. Here‘s why. “The Los Angeles Times” reports that several air marshals have had their covers blown and they have nothing to blame but their dress code. In an age when flip-flops have become de rigeur, air marshals are required to wear jackets and ties and even polish their shoes for flights.
Marshals recalled one incident in an intelligence brief when a passenger suddenly called out, oh, I see we have air marshals on board after spotting the two clean-cut agents sitting in first class. A congressional study found that, on average, about one air marshal a week in fact had their blown cover—or cover blown. It depends on how you want to say the .
Anyway, three stories down. No. 2 on the COUNTDOWN is up next. The custody battle for twin girls spills out of the courtroom and on to city streets. And then later, there‘s a reason he is called Mr. Nasty. But just whom does he compare to a poodle? That story ahead on COUNTDOWN.
WITT: Tonight‘s No. 2 story, two 4-year-old girls caught in a vicious custody battle that left the courtroom and played itself out in public.
WITT: For two little girls at the center of a nasty dispute between a well-to-do business executive and a romance novelist, there will be no storybook ending.
Our No. 2 story tonight, in a rare ruling against a biological mother, Bridget Marks is stripped of her 4-year-old twins, Amber and Scarlet. A family court judge awarded custody to the married man who fathered the girls.
NBC‘s Hoda Kotb has more.
HODA KOTB, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Child custody cases can be nasty, but few end up as ugly as this, a wrenching, horribly public battle over 4-year-old twin girls played out right on the busy streets of New York City.
The girls‘ mother, the redhead here, is Bridget Marks, former Playboy pin-up, actress and romance novelist. The girls‘ father is 54-year-old John Aylsworth, a wealthy casino executive who has been married to someone else for more than 30 years. The courts ordered Bridget to hand off her children to their father, who now has full custody.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you‘re an evil woman.
KOTB: Bridget told us the case has devastated the family.
BRIDGET MARKS, MOTHER: I love you! I love you!
We‘ve done a really good job so far, the girls and I. They‘re brave. They‘re strong. They‘re bright. They‘re beautiful. And I‘m just—I just don‘t know what is going to happen to our family. We‘re being destroyed.
KOTB: So many wondered how it ever came to this. It started so differently, she says, in 1998. Bridget had an affair with John Aylsworth that went on for years. Bridget got pregnant. She says, when the twin girls were born, John wanted little to do with them.
MARKS: I am their mother. John is their father, but I‘ve been there for them. He abandoned me when I was four months pregnant. I‘ve done this all by myself. I have put them in school. I‘ve gotten them into private school. I‘ve single-handedly raised these children. And it is a tragedy.
KOTB: But then one day, John decided to fight for custody of his daughters. The custody hearing got nasty, So nasty she had his visits secretly videotaped, accused him of sexually abusing the young girls. He accused her of lying about it.
In the end, the judge awarded full custody to the father. And the mother? Supervised visitation. So why would the children‘s biological mother only get supervised visitation? According to court records, the judge believe she made up the allegations of sexual abuse to smear him. She was angry because he wouldn‘t divorce his wife to marry her. The judge said “her unbridled anger toward the father and inability to foster the paternal parental relationship make her ill-suited to be the custodial parent. To leave the children in her custody would expose them to further emotional damage.”
John Aylsworth and his attorneys denied our request for an interview. The judge said in her findings that his infidelity did not reflect on the kind of dad he would be: “While the petitioner has had extramarital affairs, his failings impact on his ability to be a good husband, not a proper custodial parent.” She went on to say, “All persons who have seen him interact with the twins testified that he is a very good parent and the twins love him and are happy when they are with him,” which brings us back to this day, this knot of cameras, the madness on the street. Bridget‘s mother said their family wanted all this media attention.
(on camera): Why didn‘t Bridget do this in a more subtle way, like take the children out privately, instead of having this big circus out here on the street?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think one very good reason is that the public has to see what is happening to hundreds of children.
KOTB (voice-over): She says all of this sheds light on the problem. The only problem is, two confused little girls seem to be the one feeling heat.
MARK: I love you! I love you!
WITT: NBC‘s Hoda Kotb reporting.
Turning now to the no less bizarre, but slightly cheerier stories of those who make a living in the public eye, the entertainment news segment we call “Keeping Tabs.”
And we know people just can‘t get enough of the hit show “American Idol,” especially that sweetheart Simon Cowell. Recently, Simon gave us a little insight into his relationship with fellow judge Paula Abdul. He made these comments in an interview with “Extra,” but it looks like it may have actually taken place in the nuthouse.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SIMON COWELL, “AMERICAN IDOL”: You have to treat Paula like you would a poodle. You know, like, if you rescue a poodle from the pound, the poodle loves you, but needs reassurance. I‘m being serious. That‘s how you have to treat Paula. She is my poodle.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITT: All that charm and a smoker, too. He‘s the perfect man.
Meanwhile, in a far more gracious act, famed film director Francis Ford Coppola, who owns the Niebaum-Coppola Winery, has named his new line of champagne after his daughter Sofia, a lovely gesture, indeed. And Sofia herself must be absolutely sparkling over the news, except that the stuff comes in a can, Sofia Blanc de Blancs, champagne in a can.
A spokesman says, honestly, it was never meant to be in a can. They wanted to sell in it little bottles, but couldn‘t get high enough quality corks. So Sofia got canned now she‘ll grace the cooler shelf right next to her older brother, Ripple.
Tonight‘s No. 1 story, oh, yes, it‘s ladies night and the feeling is not right, an explanation next on COUNTDOWN.
WITT: For generations, it has been a staple of the hospitality industry, the very life‘s blood of Wednesday nights, sometimes Tuesdays and occasionally the odd Thursday. Alas, now comes the moment every bar patron dreads.
Our top story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, it‘s last call for ladies night. A decision reached by the New Jersey‘s Division of Civil Rights this week essentially making the once-a-week tradition illegal. The complaint was filed six years ago by one man against one bar, officials agreeing with his argument that ladies night violated the civil rights of men.
Chris Mourtos is the owner of Coastline Restaurant and Bar, the establishment at the very center of this case.
Mr. Mourtos, good evening to you.
CHRIS MOURTOS, OWNER, COASTLINE RESTAURANT & BAR: Good evening.
WITT: My understanding of ladies night has always been that they were created for men, the ladies part of the equation being more like bait. Are you surprised that it was a guy that complained here?
MOURTOS: Very surprised.
WITT: Well, what was your reaction when you heard?
MOURTOS: I was shocked when it happened and I was shocked this morning when I heard on the radio the decision that came down from the state.
WITT: How long has your club been holding ladies night? Had you ever experienced any kind of complaints before?
MOURTOS: We started in 1979. That was 25 years ago. And to my knowledge, that was the only complaint we‘ve ever had.
WITT: What exactly is ladies night in your establishment?
MOURTOS: Ladies get in for free. They don‘t have to pay cover. And they get their drinks at a reduced price.
WITT: Are you still planning to hold ladies night at all?
MOURTOS: Well, we‘re going to modify it a little bit, because we need to follow the new law that came down from Trenton today.
WITT: In fact, let‘s talk about that. New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, he issued a statement about this case today, saying—quote—
“Sir, this is bureaucratic nonsense. It‘s an overreaction that reflects a complete lack of common sense and judgment.”
So, Mr. Mourtos, ladies night, it may be canceled for now, but do you think your business will slow down any here?
MOURTOS: Well, only time will tell. People in my business tend to be very creative. We‘ll just have to find a different way to market our product.
WITT: Are you concerned about comparisons being drawn from this case? What if someone were to argue, sir, that what if you were to ask whites to pay less than blacks, perhaps, for this kind of a situation for drinks? I mean, do you think this is going to start all kinds of conversation?
MOURTOS: Well, every business has—that runs some kind of promotion that target a particular group, it‘s automatically, I guess, ignoring another group.
For example, we do 20 percent discounts for senior citizens. If you‘re under 60, you‘re being discriminated against. We also do 99-cent kids meals. So, if you are between the ages of 12 and 59, you‘re getting discriminated on both ends.
WITT: What do you think is next for bar owners of New Jersey? I mean, do you find some kind of an alternative to ladies night, more than just what you‘re suggesting right now, a little bit of an adjustment here and there? Is there something that you can do to keep on a promotional value to keep your Wednesday nights hopping?
MOURTOS: Well, first of all, we‘re going to monitor to see what happens and how it affects our business. Second, we‘re going to be talking to our attorneys, because this is an appealable case and we probably will be filing an appeal on Monday. And we‘re going to play it by ear.
WITT: What do you think this is going to cost you?
MOURTOS: I have no idea.
WITT: Does it annoy you, the fact that this man who brought this case didn‘t have to pay a dime to bring it to court?
MOURTOS: Yes, it does.
WITT: All right, well, Chris Mourtos, we do wish you good luck, both on ladies nights and every other night there at owner—rather, you are the owner of the Coastline Restaurant and Bar.
Thank you so much for your time tonight, sir.
MOURTOS: And thank you very much for taking the time to do this.
WITT: We‘re happy to do so.
Let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories for you. They are the ones that we think you are going to be talking about tomorrow.
Beginning with No. 5, President Bush has put a personal attorney on standby, this in case he himself is forced to testify about who may have leaked the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, to the media. No. 4, defending Scott Peterson. His defense attorney portrays him as loving husband and father-to-be. He blames his shifty behavior, like dyeing his hair, on the tabloid media.
No. 3, funding state security. The least populated state in the nation, that being Wyoming, gets the most homeland security money per person, while California gets the least. No. 2, from the courtroom to the city streets, a custody fight over twin girls ends in a very public separation played out in front of the TV cameras. And, No. 1, the state of New Jersey finds that discounts on ladies nights violates men‘s civil rights. Go figure.
That‘s COUNTDOWN, everyone. I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann.
Make it a great night. Oops.
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