Guest: Robin Wright, Michael Noone, Michael Isikoff
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The countdown to sovereignty: It ends sooner than expected. The U.S. hands Iraq back to Iraqis, but will the insurgents think they caused this country to change its plans? And what of Saddam Hussein? Wasn‘t he supposed to be legally turned over to Iraq before sovereignty was? His lawyers now say he should be a free man.
Hostage taking continues, now it is a Lebanese-born American soldier. Amid conflicting reports that an Ohio soldier taken in April may already be dead.
“Fahrenheit 9/11”: Beyond its supporters‘ wildest dreams, worse than its critics‘ darkest nightmares, the No. 1 box office hit in America.
And speaking of hits, do you know this man? He is the next Mr. Britney Spears. And he is reportedly the subject of a death threat. We assume these facts are not related.
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Good evening. It is highly unlikely you don‘t already know the basic headline. Two days early, in the middle of the night, Eastern time, the United States, with no warning and neither pomp nor circumstance, turned over sovereignty of Iraq to that nation‘s interim government.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: That headline has already been analyzed to death, but what about two that may lurk behind it? Insurgents and terrorists in Iraq have been seeking to disrupt the June 30 handover. Will they now view the abrupt timing as one of the results of their mayhem?
Will they declare victory? And what legally will happen to Saddam Hussein? His lawyers tonight are insisting he should be a free man. Those questions in depth, in a moment. First back to the headline.
There is more ceremony when the president switches planes. But today at 10:26 a.m. Baghdad time, 2:26 a.m. Eastern, the outgoing head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer, handing over the proverbial keys to one of the largest nations in the Middle East. Meeting inside the heavily guarded green zone, far beyond public view, Ambassador Bremer presented Iraq‘s new president and prime minister with an official letter, recognizing the newly sovereign government and then sealed the handover with a handshake. Just a few hours later, the man who has effectively ruled Iraq for the last 13 months boarded a C-130 plane and left town. Must have had a connecting flight to which he had to rush.
But, while the ambassador was abrupt, the president was effusive. Speaking 1,000 miles away from the NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, Bush called this a day of great hope for Iraqis and celebrated the transfer of power as a sign of the coalition‘s strength.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This day also marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition. We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed, and to restore sovereignty. We have kept our word.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Now back to the question of the reaction of those in Iraq who don‘t quite agree with Mr. Bush‘s goal, as stated there. Robin Wright is a diplomatic correspondent of the “Washington Post.” Reporting on and from Iraq constitutes the 12th war she‘s covered. She joins us now from the “Post‘s” news room in Washington.
Good evening, thanks for your time.
ROBIN WRIGHT, “WASHINGTON POST”: Nice to be with you.
OLBERMANN: Nearly every last minute of the coverage of this, today, has been about the surprise in the timing or the reaction of ordinary Iraqis or of the political impact here. But what do we know of, what can we expect about the reaction of the insurgents and the terrorists that all this was designed to preempt?
WRIGHT: Well, clearly they‘re going to feel this was an action taken in part because of the pressure they‘ve been exerting on the Coalition Provisional Authority, on American troops over the last few weeks, but particularly the last few days. They will perceive this as a move marking their success. Clearly this is all an issue of who is—how it is interpreted by the eye of the beholder, because the Americans believe that they took this action, in part, because the Iraqis had shown over the past month, since assuming part—part control, the new interim Iraqi government, that they had achieved enough that the Americans could afford to leave two days ahead of schedule.
OLBERMANN: Excluding the attempts to rebuild Iraq‘s infrastructure, it seems like this country, and I don‘t mean the administration, almost everyone in the country seems to have been to some degree or another tone deaf about the impact of nearly everything we have done in Iraq. Is this another case of that? Could the insurgents, could ordinary Iraqis view this as, look, we made the Americans change their plans, terrorism against them works?
WRIGHT: I think the lack of celebration today in Baghdad is part the result of 14 months of deep and growing frustration among Iraqis. They celebrated after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they thought that that was going to make a huge difference in their lives. The fact is that electricity is still a daily problem, unemployment is still hovering around half of the country. There are problems with schools, clinics; the oil pipeline has been hit over and over affecting their national income, that there are still an extraordinary number of problems. There were exceptional expectations as the war came to oust Saddam Hussein came to an end. And am awful lot of that—of the expectations have not yet been met, so there‘s not much to celebrate in the eyes of many Iraqis.
OLBERMANN: If Secretary Rumsfeld could analogize the attacks of the insurgency to the Tet offensive, I guess I can ask this question: Tapping into your story in the “Post” today, does anybody fear that in Iraq, where symbolism is so important, or throughout the Middle East where it‘s so important, that the nature of the handover today, just the behind the doors kind of thing, I mean, immediate exit of Ambassador Bremer today, might look a little bit like the helicopters taking out—off out of Vietnam in 1975. Would there be Iraqi democrats or Iraqi insurgents who might see it that way?
WRIGHT: I don‘t think you can make any comparison to the way Vietnam fell. The fact is that Iraq is entering into a new phase and much of what really is going to happen, the relationship between the United States and the Iraqis will be determined over the next six or seven months, the second phase of this transition, which is going to play out in three phases, we‘ve only gone through the first one. There‘s kind of an illusion in the United States that June 30, or the end of the occupation was going to mark the end of the major involvement by the United States and the fact is the next phase, in many ways, is far more critical in determining Iraq‘s future and the role the United States plays will be just as important.
OLBERMANN: Turned out it wasn‘t even June 30. Robin Wright of the “Washington Post,” many thanks for your insight tonight.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: There‘s another small detail about today‘s beat the clock handover, the other handover, that of Saddam Hussein. His lawyers are tonight insisting that he should be immediately released because his detention now violates international law. Shortly after his capture in December, he was declared a prisoner of war by the United States. Prisoners of war, unless formerly charged with any crimes above and beyond their status as prisoners of war, are supposed to, says the International Red Cross, be released as soon as an occupying power relinquishes its control of the country. Well, the relinquishing happened this morning, officially, before Saddam was legally charged with anything. The Iraqi official now in charge of setting up the tribunal that will try Saddam says Hussein will appear before an Iraqi judge, quote, “in the next few days, but his confinement will be maintained by the multinational force.” That would be us.
It seems like the longest of long shots but it would be a bit of a problem if the hastened handover of the Iraqi interim government this morning meant Saddam Hussein, whose overthrow was central to the war, was suddenly given back legal possession of his hidey hole and his hide.
Joining us now, Michael Noone, law professor at Catholic University, expert on international war crimes and military law.
Professor Noone, good evening and thanks for your time.
PROF. MICHAEL NOONE, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: Thank you for inviting me.
OLBERMANN: It seems implausible that Saddam Hussein could be let out of prison as a victim of violation of international law, but was not the sequence of events supposed to be pretty clear and was it just messed up?
NOONE: The sequence of events was very clear, that we were to keep custody of Saddam Hussein while the Iraqi government gained jurisdiction over him and that‘s to be the handover. Now we‘ve accelerated the handover, and the issue is further compounded by the Supreme Court‘s decision this afternoon saying that U.S. courts had jurisdictions over foreigners held in confinement outside the United States.
OLBERMANN: I just mentioned the promise from the Iraqi now leader charged with setting up that tribunal that Saddam would be brought into an Iraqi court, face an Iraqi judge within a few days. Is there latitude under the relevant international law? Is a couple of days close enough when we‘re talking about things like this?
NOONE: Traditionally, a couple of days was considered to be close enough because it was understood that on the day that power was turned over, not all the prison camp doors would be opened and people released to the field.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s say that the bid by his lawyers to get him free, actually got some traction to it. What is the—what is the fallback position? What—obviously the U.S. doesn‘t say‘ “oh, yeah, you‘re right. We messed it up. We complicated it, he‘s free.” What does the U.S. do?
What does the new Iraqi government do?
NOONE: Well, I think that the challenge, if one was brought, would be brought in a U.S. court based on the Rasul Supreme Court decision this afternoon. And the U.S. government‘s position would be that that decision involved two Yemenis and several Australians. This involves a head of state that is charged with war crimes.
OLBERMANN: The international war crimes expert Michael Noone of Catholic University. We appreciate your insight, thank you for your time tonight.
NOONE: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, in the No. 5 story, all history has footnotes. Today was history, thus today had a footnote. The president caught in the act of note passing during the NATO summit in Turkey. Mr. Bush gets the handoff from Mr. Rumsfeld, looks at the note and tries to keep it to himself. He really, really tries, but he cannot hold it in much longer. He will lean over, quick behind the hand whisper to Tony Blair and the ever-composed British leader smiles and just nods.
But for the president, that‘s hardly enough, so he reaches out and the two leaders shake on it. Mr. President, perhaps you have something you would like to share with the rest of the class? As it turns out, he did. The very note posted on the White House Web site for all to see: “Mr.
President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m.
Iraq time.” And it‘s signed, Condi.
The president scribbled his own response on the bottom, “Let freedom ring!” exclamation point. So that is what they were whispering about.
COUNTDOWN opening tonight with the early handover in Iraq. Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story: A very different deadline looming in Iraq and no one hopes it comes early. A U.S. Marine kidnapped there. He‘ll live, insurgents say, only if all Iraqi prisoners get released by Wednesday.
And later, “Fahrenheit 9/11”: All ad hype, all those headlines, all of them were understatements. The box office figures that shocked Hollywood and Washington. Stand by.
OLBERMANN: No. 4 story in the COUNTDOWN up next. Another American captured in Iraq, threats of beheading if demands are not met, but this time, the captive is a U.S. Marine. Stand by.
OLBERMANN: If any situation could be worse than losing an abducted family member in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, the Maupin family of Batavia, Ohio may be experiencing it tonight. Our No. 4 story in the COUNTDOWN:
Handover or no handover, the terror of American hostages continues, as does that of U.S. Army Specialist Matt Maupin. An unidentified group claims it has killed the 20-year-old soldier; it has promulgated a videotape which it claims depicts the murder. But U.S. military officials who‘ve seen that tape tell NBC News it is of such poor quality that it‘s impossible to make a positive identification. The family doesn‘t know, but there are world-wide claims that the worst has already happened.
Maupin was one of eight Americans, seven of them contractors, who disappeared on April 9 after an ambush against their convoy. The bodies of four civilian employees of Kellogg, Brown, and Root were later found near the site of the attack. The body of Sergeant Elmer Krause was also found, later. One civilian driver, Thomas Hamill, escaped nearly a month later, the others are still missing.
The new tape shows someone being shot several times in the head and body and then dumped into a shallow grave. The Al Jazeera network says it has the tape and that an unseen voice claims Maupin was killed because the U.S. government did not change its policies in Iraq and elsewhere. U.S. officials say that without a body, they cannot establish Maupin‘s fate, his official status tonight remains “captured.”
Meanwhile in the case of another kidnapping, it is as if the entire conflict in Iraq, the entire conflict in the Middle East has been summed up in the identity of the victim. He is an American Marine corporal, Wassef Ali Hassoun, born in Lebanon, for 14 years a resident of suburban Salt Lake City. Kidnappers have threatened to behead Corporal Hassoun unless all Iraqi prisoners are released from, quote, “occupation jails.” He had not been seen since June 19, then the videotape showed up yesterday on the Al Jazeera network. His kidnappers claim they lured him away from his Marine outpost, then abducted him. His commanders thought he had gone AWOL; they have now reclassified him “captured.”
In what is becoming an all too familiar story, another American‘s family and friends find themselves in desperate straits tonight. Ironically, some of Corporal Hassoun‘s family live in a town called West Jordan. There, outside the family home, is our correspondent, George Lewis.
George, good evening.
GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Keith. The family remains secluded in this home at this hour, not wanting to come outside and talk to the press. They have had several visitors, including a local policeman, and a family spokesman is in there with them now, talking to them. They‘re also said to be praying. The Hassoun family is active in a local mosque where tonight local Muslims are holding a prayer service in honor of Hassoun.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHUAIB-UD DIN, IMAM, KHADEEJA MOSQUE: We will have a special prayer service that entails reciting the Koran. Community members will come together and recite passages from the Koran for about an hour or so, and then there will be a collective prayer. We are hoping for his safe return, that—we‘ll pray for his safe return. And that‘s basically all we can do at the moment is pray.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEWIS: Christians in this community are also holding their own prayer service for Hassoun, tonight. It‘s interesting to note as long as we‘re talking about religion, that five of the current hostages are all Muslims, three Turks, a Pakistani and the Corporal Hassoun. So, Keith, being a Muslim is no guarantee of staying away from hostage captors.
OLBERMANN: Indeed it is not. George Lewis at the Hassoun family home in Utah. Many thanks, George.
The rest of tonight‘s forth story should not be equated with deliberate kidnap, torture and murder, nor should it be dismissed as entirely different. The inspector general of the U.S. Army and the head of its criminal division are now investigating whether as many as 11 prisoner deaths at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison and other facilities in Iraq may have been homicides. The deaths are among 15, currently attributed to natural or undetermined causes. These 11 deaths occurred during periods of extreme heat or extreme cold outside the prisons. A series of human rights groups has urged the military to see if U.S. troops deliberately or negligently exposed Iraqi prisoners to the extreme temperatures. If evidence suggests that‘s true, the military says, any or all of the cases could be reclassified as homicides and charges brought against U.S. personnel.
And lastly here, the U.S. is denying a report on another Arabic television network that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been captured. Believed to be behind the beheadings of American Nicholas Berg and South Korean Kim Sun-il. Zarqawi has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, but a military spokesman says nothing has happened that would necessitate paying it out.
COUNTDOWN past the forth story now, up next, the much needed break from the serious news of the day. “Oddball” is around the corner. This is either part of tonight‘s round-up or there has been a bathtub recall on the day the dam burst.
And brewing war of words over the best brews. The winner? Whoever can wrap themselves most tightly in the American flag.
OLBERMANN: We‘re back and we pause the COUNTDOWN for the much needed break from the day‘s real news with the segment full of the day‘s really weird news. Let‘s play “Oddball.”
And we‘re racing, racing, racing. It is the 12th annual Bathtub Regatta down the Fleiss (ph) River in Leipzig, Germany. They‘re not actually bathtubs, they‘re just whacky homemade boats piloted by people in whacky homemade costumes, all part of the new “we‘re German, but we can still have fun campaign.” The race was won by a group from Liechtenstein. Didn‘t know there was a group in Liechtenstein of any kind. The rest, evidently, fell victim to the old “we‘re German, we perfected submarine warfare campaign.”
To Comas, Peru, not much more than a shantytown, one of the poorest areas in that county, but it is a glorious day in Comas. Local chefs have gathered together over 900 pounds of flour, 119 gallons of egg yolks, 88 pounds of baking soda, enough sugar to suffocate a llama, all to bake the Guinness Book of Records new world‘s largest cake -- 807 feet long, made by 300 bakers, enough to feed 15,000 people. They may not have had dinner, but they will all get dessert. A big cake indeed, but honestly, ever been impressed when they make a cake like that and then call it world‘s largest? It‘s a normal size cake, it‘s just really long. Big deal.
Want to see a big cake? That‘s what I‘m talking about!
This is Chicago, Illinois, and this is a giant cheese cake. They didn‘t mess around here, this one is eight feet tall and weighs over 1,000 pounds. It could crush you, like this. It was served up at the Taste of Chicago festival over the weekend, better known as “Embrace Obesity Day.”
Finally to Maplewood, Minnesota, where local democrat, Eileen Fritch (ph), went skydiving yesterday as a challenge to former President George H.W. Bush. It was her 90th birthday. President Bush jumped out of a plane two weeks ago on his 80th. Ms. Fritch jumped with an instructor strapped to her back. It was a flawless jump, a perfect landing, and by all accounts, her teeth remained in her mouth. Constant viewers will understand why I brought up her teeth remaining in her mouth. As this COUNTDOWN hall of fame clip shows, that‘ll happen.
“Oddball” now in the record books and not a moment too soon.
Speaking of records, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” in its opening weekend, making a few milestones of its own. Never mind affecting the presidential race, this may be doing well enough to jump-start the economy.
And more seriously, the 9/11 Commission: Two reports tonight on its early findings, including evidence that the Mohammed Attas of this world did indeed have help in this country.
Those stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day:
No. 3: Troy Musil of Eerie, Pennsylvania, now fined five grand for having thrown a suspicious bag into that city‘s largest reservoir leading to the calling out of the bomb squad and the HAZMAT unit. The bag was filled with his dirty underwear.
No. 2: An unidentified thief in an all-night coffee shop in Kansas City, Kansas. He got away with an undisclosed amount of money, but in the process, he knocked over the coffee of one of the witnesses, so he gave the man a dollar for the spilled java. Hey buddy, get back here, where do you think we are? That was $4.99, that cost me.
And No. 1: Scottish shepherds. At the suggestion of the local member of Parliament, they will be given free supplies of Viagra. This in hopes of reversing the declining human population in the Scottish highlands. However, the local sheep are reported missing and presumed escaped.
OLBERMANN: For those expecting that Michael Moore‘s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” would have had all the media political impact of “The Bicentennial Minute,” the weekend past was a revelation indeed, happy or unhappy, depending on your political orientation. It was the top grossing film in North America over the weekend, $24 million.
Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, if you hated “Bowling For Columbine,” if you were rooting for the brothers Wayans in the movies “White Chicks,” or if you were hoping that the scorched-earth protest policy against Moore‘s flick would work, hide your belt and your shoe laces. In a moment, the political impact and the question, did the anti-Moore forces bring this upon themselves, as analyzed by TV expert and political drama mogul Lawrence O‘Donnell.
First, more moola for Moore, as chronicled for us by correspondent Mark Mullen.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You‘re a great gift to the American people.
MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER/AUTHOR: Oh, thank you for saying that.
MARK MULLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After all the controversy and hype, a love fest for director Michael Moore and his moviegoers in New York, as “Fahrenheit 9/11” become the first documentary-style movie to debut as a top weekend film nationwide.
MOORE: I just—I couldn‘t believe these numbers. It‘s historic for a documentary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FAHRENHEIT 9/11”)
MOORE: He went on vacation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MULLEN: Though the film, which assaults George Bush‘s action after the 9/11 attacks, won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, nobody was sure how popular it would be with mainstream America, though it did have a built-in audience of those who oppose the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope it will get rid of that person called Bush.
MULLEN: But the launch of “Fahrenheit 9/11” surprised even industry insiders, who saw sold-out shows in Northern cities and long lines in Southern towns, like Nashville, where this man complained about how few theaters were showing it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is censorship at its height. And that is what surprised me the most. Do something about it.
TIM GRAY, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, “VARIETY”: This is a film that‘s gotten a lot of buzz and a lot of publicity. People are talking about it. And I think a lot of moviegoers are going to see it and a lot of people who don‘t normally go to movies are going to see it. And that‘s one reason why it‘s so popular.
MULLEN: Not with everyone.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I still felt slightly manipulated by it.
MULLEN: Of course, many strongly opposed to “Fahrenheit” never went at all, especially those who believe the film is political propaganda against Bush the candidate.
(on camera): It‘s unclear whether interest at the box office over this movie will translate into any votes against Bush at the polls.
(voice-over): But this weekend proved one thing. Controversy and curiosity has made “Fahrenheit 9/11” red hot with movie fans.
Mark Mullen, NBC News, Los Angeles.
OLBERMANN: So the intersection of presidential politics and Hollywood Boulevard turns out to have been one hell of a profitable corner for Michael Moore to have set up on.
Few people know both streets better than Lawrence O‘Donnell, MSNBC senior political analyst, creator of the NBC series “Mr. Sterling,” writer-producer for “The West Wing,” whose cameo as Michael Sheen‘s father in said series still rings across studios from coast to coast.
And how are you, sir?
LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Good, Keith.
I saw the movie this weekend and didn‘t have to stand in line, luckily went to a screening at a friend‘s house. This thing really can have political effect, Keith, because of the lines it‘s getting in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Dayton and Northern Florida. These swing state areas where the swing voters are, are going to see this movie. And what we saw in the last election was, the election can turn in some places with hundreds of votes, in other places, with thousands of votes.
Those are shockingly small numbers to effect a presidential election, but they can. And this is very potent stuff for swing voters, who normally are not very well informed, which is to say in this case, they‘re not very interested in and not very informed about the list of inaccuracies that you can find in your local newspaper that are in the movie.
They‘re not going to really be aware of that. They‘re going to probably go with the frame of the movie and it will affect their thinking.
OLBERMANN: And the fact that they know about this film, it seems like every few years, we get a political or a religious controversy about a film and its opponents make the same mistake over and over again.
They beat their chests. They chew up the scenery. They fill the airtime on TV and radio. They seem to wind up doing nothing but promoting that which they would prefer to have go away. How could politically savvy people have done this yet again?
O‘DONNELL: Well, there was one politically unsavvy person at the outset.
That was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, who, trying to be friendly to the Bushes, because he does big business in Florida at Disneyland, and this is all according to Michael Moore‘s agent, not refuted by Michael Eisner—Eisner said, I don‘t want to distribute this movie at Disney. And that put it out on the free market eventually.
And it also created an air of suppression around the movie. If Michael Eisner really wanted to be the Bush‘s friend, what he would have done is have kept Disney control of the movie, done no advertising for it, put it out on 10 screens, some of them in Alaska, and had the thing go away.
Instead, it‘s become, starting with the Eisner mistake and then with the Republican side getting agitated about it, instead of trying to stay quiet about it, you‘ve got this phenomenon that we‘ve now seen first with Mel Gibson‘s movie, now with this, which is simply, if the big studios don‘t want you to see this movie, it must be something that you want to see.
OLBERMANN: Yes. It is a time in which somebody believes at all times that they‘re not being told the truth.
The surprise, though, about the dimension in this, that it was the No.
1 film in America, this seems genuine in two areas.
O‘DONNELL: It was...
OLBERMANN: But in two areas that don‘t usually have a lot of genuine reaction or genuine surprise, Hollywood and Washington, who‘s more surprised and why are they more surprised?
O‘DONNELL: Well, show business is surprised because it‘s a documentary. Washington doesn‘t watch the box office that much. But let me—I hate to rain on this at all, but let‘s put the numbers in perspective.
The number of people who went to this movie this weekend is actually slightly smaller than the number of people who watched “Meet the Press.” To get 28 million at the box office is, you know, roughly four million people. So it depends, though, as I said, who those people are and where they are and whose minds were changed in what kind of numbers.
OLBERMANN: Well, you have just hit the ultimate answer. We need to charge people more to watch “Meet the Press.” That‘s simply what we need to do here.
O‘DONNELL: And we have to do exit polling at Dayton movie theaters.
OLBERMANN: Lawrence O‘Donnell, the MSNBC senior political analyst, always a pleasure, sir. Thanks again.
O‘DONNELL: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: That date abbreviation, 9/11, has itself come to be shorthand for so many things, about not just that awful day, but many of the days since.
Continuing the third story on the COUNTDOWN, two reports of what the 9/11 Commission is going to reveal when it issues its final report probably next month. The bipartisan group tipped its hand earlier this month, first in three reports issued only weeks ago detailing the unpreparedness of aviation and defense agencies.
Now sources telling the magazine “Newsweek” that commission staff has concluded that the attacks were—quote—“probably preventable” and that the primary responsibility for allowing them was a series of intelligence failures by the CIA. In what is largely speculated to be a move anticipating that finding, CIA Director George Tenet announced his resignation last month and will leave that post early next.
But clearly CIA is not the only agency in the commission‘s crosshairs. In another finding, 9/11 investigators reportedly point at the FBI as having lost the scent, two sources of scent, in fact. The bureau has long maintained that the 19 hijackers did not have assistance from al Qaeda operatives within the United States, but the Associated Press reporting the commission has concluded that two men, both living in San Diego, both known to the CIA, both known to have had a connection to the bombing of the USS Cole, aided two of the mass murderers.
Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, part of the team is that crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, the only two of the 19 who did not speak English, they were provided driver‘s licenses and housing by Mohdar Abdullah and Anwar Aulaqi. Aulaqi left the United States shortly after September 11. Abdullah was questioned but not charged after he claimed no prior knowledge of the attacks, later bragging that he had such knowledge.
Unable to corroborate his claims, the FBI had him deported to Yemen this past may.
Michael Isikoff is the investigative correspondent for “Newsweek” and co-author of that article about the commission‘s findings and the CIA‘s failures.
Michael, good evening.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, “NEWSWEEK”: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: Probably preventable. Apart from the fact that it probably means Mr. Tenet‘s resignation was probably not preventable, what is the news in this?
ISIKOFF: Well, anybody who‘s been following this for some time can see this coming. The commissioners have dropped more than a few hints that -- and starting with Chairman Tom Kean—that, as they reviewed the evidence, it‘s become clear in hindsight that there were clearly things that could have been done, that could have stopped—or could have disrupted the 9/11 plot.
And the one window into the plot involves those two guys who just showed up on the screen, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. These are the two hijackers who originally had been tracked by the CIA at an al Qaeda summit in January 2000. The amazing thing about this—and I don‘t think it‘s quite penetrated to the American public—is, especially with the latest report of the commission, that at that al Qaeda summit in January 2000, there were dress sort of rehearsals going on and planning for the 9/11 plot taking place.
And the CIA was watching it. They had an arrangement with Malaysian special branch to photograph the meetings. They knew the meeting was taking place. They knew the guys who were there. And most, you know, astonishingly, they tracked those two guys, al-Mihdhar al-Hazmi, as they flew from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok in January of 2000.
The CIA loses the trail in Bangkok, but then learns that al-Mihdhar, that al-Hazmi flies to Los Angeles and al-Mihdhar had a visa, multientry visa that would allow him to return to the United States at any time. So they had good reason to believe that those two people had gone from an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia to the United States. And they never passed the information along to other U.S. government agencies who could have done something about it.
So the FBI was totally blind that there were two al Qaeda guys in the United States in San Diego at a time when, remember, George Tenet, the CIA director, has said he had declared war on al Qaeda. The FBI takes no steps, one of them we now—you know, as has been reported for some time, al-Hazmi actually had his name listed in the San Diego phone book.
They were living with a guy who was an FBI informant. And the FBI was clueless on this. And the FBI also didn‘t take its own steps to investigate people in San Diego who were dealing with the hijackers who they had reason to be suspicious about, in particular the two people you mentioned, Mohdar Abdullah and Anwar Aulaqi.
OLBERMANN: You‘ve got a second report in the current issue about a huge chunk having just been taken out of the supposed al Qaeda-Iraq link because a key source, probably the key source recanted what he told his interrogators? Who is this and what did he recant?
ISIKOFF: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. He was a senior al Qaeda commander who was captured in Pakistan in November 2001. He provided information to CIA interrogators from the get-go and, in particular, information he claimed about knowledge of Iraq providing training in poisons and gases to al Qaeda in the late 1990s and as late as December 2000.
That information from al-Libi made its way first into President Bush‘s own comments prewar, his Cincinnati speech, and most spectacularly, in Colin Powell‘s address to the Security Council, where he goes on at great length about this senior al Qaeda—senior terrorist operative who has told his story about chemical and biological weapons training that Iraq had provided to al Qaeda.
Well, after the war, more recently, actually, in recent months, the CIA learns additional information, goes back to al-Libi, questions him again and he recants his story. He acknowledges that it wasn‘t true after all. This has never been publicly acknowledged by the Bush administration. But if you noticed, during the flap a couple of weeks ago about the 9/11 Commission‘s conclusions about no collaborative relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq, they pushed back, but they never brought up again the original charge about poisons and gases training. And that‘s because he al-Libi has recanted.
Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for “Newsweek,” as always, thanks for your time tonight, sir.
ISIKOFF: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: COUNTDOWN now past our No. 3 story. Up next, the two beer giants are not trying to prove they‘re better-tasting, better-priced, more foamy, just that if you‘re a better American, you‘ll drink their beer. And later, the future Mr. Britney Spears, who would want to threaten him? The mother of his unborn child? The previous Mr. Britney Spears? Cynical newscasters everywhere? “Keeping Tabs” ahead.
First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day.
QUESTION: Does it matter to each of you what the critics say?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes. It matters to me what you say. I mean, it matters to me what...
BUSH: Sorry. Just a little humor. Yes, it matters.
AARON ZITRON, ADULT KICKBALL PLAYER: People that were a little timid to play sports that require more skill come out and play kickball because they know you don‘t have to have any skills. And no one‘s going to laugh at you.
TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: People who want to drag the country backwards, who want to turn it back into a failed and repressive state. And so that‘s why it‘s right for NATO to step up to the mark today and say, we are going to extend the role of the security force.
OLBERMANN: Measured against, say, the saga of ex-Illinois Republican senatorial candidate Jack Ryan, you know, Jack “I‘d like you to meet my lovely wife” Ryan, our No. 2 on the COUNTDOWN is not quite that compelling, nor that political, but it does address a topic that is nearly as important to the average American male as—well, as meeting Jack Ryan‘s lovely wife.
What started as a clever spoof of political controversy and of democracy vs. monarchy has fermented into a real controversy. It was just an ad campaign, one brewski trying to one-up another brewski.
But, as Kevin Tibbles reports, it has now escalated from being a series of commercials starring comedian Bob Odenkirk to a matter for the courts and the government of South Africa.
KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC CORRESPONDENT (VOICE-OVER): Beer certainly wasn‘t invented in America, but the way America‘s big breweries carry on, you need to have your hand over your heart just to drink the stuff.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
BOB ODENKIRK, ACTOR: America is a democracy. Break it down, demo-cracy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TIBBLES: The first salvo fired by Miller. The target, Budweiser‘s claim it‘s the king of beers. Now, that‘s downright un-American.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
ODENKIRK: Beer needs a democracy, too. A president of beers!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TIBBLES: Stunned by Miller‘s campaign, Budweiser left the Clydesdales in the barn and rolled out the talking lizards to fight back. They say Miller isn‘t really American.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Miller was bought by South African breweries.
And you would have to be American to run for president of beers.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, that‘s too bad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOB GARFIELD, “ADVERTISING AGE”: What do I make of this battle?
Well, it‘s silly and probably beneath everybody involved.
TIBBLES: Bob Garfield of “Advertising Age” and the co-host of NPR‘s “On the Media” says the beer war has gotten out of hand.
GARFIELD: I understand this is only beer and we‘re not talking about anything important, but nonetheless it is a coarsening of public discourse, much as we‘ve seen in politics. And it‘s always a bad idea.
TIBBLES (on camera): This beer battle came to a head literally when Bud started calling Miller the queen of carbs over Miller‘s claims its light beer has fewer carbohydrates.
(voice-over): Miller took Bud to court, saying the queen charge was disparaging and misleading. But Miller says its sales have soared and have since dropped the claim. But are the beer drinkers of America paying any attention?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those lizards haven‘t been funny since 1997.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miller Lite, they just went a little too far after a while, I thought.
TIBBLES: And then there‘s the question, is there really any difference between them anyway?
GARFIELD: Budweiser is saying Miller Lite, Bud Light, choose on taste. OK, I‘ll choose on taste. Amstel, please.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
ODENKIRK: This whole thing is a travesty and a shame and a mockery.
It‘s a traveshamockery.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TIBBLES: In the billion-dollar beer biz, all the flag-waving may fall by the wayside once the froth settles.
Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, Chicago.
OLBERMANN: And a second thing you need to know about tonight‘s No. 2 story, all of tonight‘s brewing news is not merely all about frosting your beer stein. The newest FBI warning about a potential terror weapon, the beer cooler, “TIME” magazine reporting today that, in the latest weekly bulletin to the 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies that hang on its every word, the bureau has asked them to be on the lookout for—quote—“plastic foam containers” and other junk familiar to those who spend time on the water.
They could be rigged—emphasize the word could—to explode on contact.
Speaking of commonplace things often found discarded down by the river, there‘s Britney Spears. Our opening story in our nightly roundup of the celebrity flotsam, a report that her latest fiance has received death threats. So says the TV show “Extra” tonight. it quotes unnamed sources who say Ms. Spears is beefing up security because new fiance Kevin Federline has reportedly been receiving death threats and may have a stalker.
They were at a movie screening last night, the report continues, flanked by bodyguards. Supposedly, this has nothing to do with the fact that long before the November 20, the new Mr. Spears will become a father of another woman‘s baby, his ex-girlfriend, Shar Jackson, who appears in the TV series “Moesha” is due in July. Just a coincidence.
And a story of fame gone bad that strikes disturbing close to home. My cousin by marriage and adoption boxer Mike Tyson had reportedly told a British tabloid that he‘s not just broke. He‘s broke enough to be living on the street. “This is London” quotes him as saying: “I‘ve got nowhere to live. I‘ve been crashing with friends, literally sleeping in shelters. Unsavory characters are giving me money and I‘m taking it.”
Whether the story is a fabrication or just Mike feeling a little sorry for himself, it does contradict his comments at a recent news conference announcing an upcoming fight at which he said he is broke and his two homes in Las Vegas are for sale, but he‘s been living in a house in Phoenix.
COUNTDOWN four-fifths complete. Ahead, this young man is No. 1. And the No. 1 story of the night, why he is who he is—next.
OLBERMANN: Finally to the top of the COUNTDOWN, and we end where we began.
Political control can be handed over from one group of people to another in the symbolic if not literal middle of the night. Democracies can be declared. Presidents can slip their colleagues notes of congratulation. And if you live in Iraq, all of it, all of the majesty, the pomp, the weight, can mean absolutely nothing.
Our correspondent Tom Aspell from Baghdad now on what it‘s like to try to live your life when you know that whenever somebody talks about possible targets of the Iraqi insurgents, they are talking about you.
TOM ASPELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Halad Hasan (ph) is a 20-something Iraqi living in Baghdad. He listens to the Bee Gees every morning, makes his bed with an American flag. He is employed by a foreign news agency. For this, insurgents have threatened to kill him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I‘m scared because I have a family behind me. Who is going to take of them? So this is what scares me most each day, each hour.
ASPELL: Halad supports his mother and three younger sisters. His mother worries about his safety because the streets are dangerous now in these days of political turmoil.
“When he is going to work, I keep thinking, wondering if he‘s going to come home or not,” she says.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s like you cannot go on street safely. You don‘t know. Maybe there‘s an (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in front of you. You don‘t know. People are dying.
ASPELL: Dozens of Iraqis working for foreigners, especially American soldiers, have been killed or kidnapped in the past year. Halad lost his best friend a few months ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was ambushed on his way back from assignment outside Baghdad. A gunman show up and shot at them.
ASPELL: Halad takes no chances on his way to work, varies his route to work every day, sometimes flagging down a taxi on the highway.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I might be watched, somebody spying on me. And you don‘t know what‘s going to happen next. But I used to change my routes every day—every hour, sometimes use different entrances.
ASPELL (on camera): What do you think‘s going to happen in the next few days?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the next few days?
ASPELL: Immediately after the handover.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s going to be a big problem. This country is going to witness a day that it‘s never witnessed before.
ASPELL (voice-over): It may have already started. Coordinated insurgent attacks in Baghdad and all over the Sunni Triangle killed more than 100 Iraqis last week. Many think like Halad, that the security situation is going to deteriorate quickly. At home again, Halad is a TV news addict, devouring anything about Iraq, and a devoted family man to his mother and three sisters, who depend on him.
(on camera): What do you do at night? Say on a night on a night when you‘re not working, what do you do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watching TV.
ASPELL: That‘s it?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Believe me.
ASPELL: It‘s not safe to go out?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s not about go out, because there is nowhere to go out.
ASPELL (voice-over): Nothing to do but wait to see how the new government handles his new country.
Tom Aspell, NBC News, Baghdad.
OLBERMANN: That‘s COUNTDOWN. Thanks for being part of it. I‘m Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.
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