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'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Dec. 29

Read the transcript to the 8 p.m. ET show

Guest: Peter Goodman, John Rundle, David Phillips, Juliette Kayyem, Jeff Caldwell

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

And now the number nears 100,000 dead.  Lives, families, cities, hearts of nations destroyed.  No end in sight to the pain, no end in sight to new visions of horror.

What price relief?  How much should a nation spending $8 million an hour on a war in Iraq spend to stave off starvation, epidemic and yes, even terrorism around the Indian Ocean?

Terrorism continues elsewhere.  Two attacks in Riyadh.  The Saudis say they killed seven suspects there and an awful new terrorist weapon in Iraq.  Police called to a booby-trapped house.

And a sad law obeyed, a little less order in the television world. 

The actor Jerry Orbach is dead.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.  The misery encompasses all as the seas themselves did four days ago.  In some places around the Indian Ocean, nearly all of the living have to choose whether to bring their handkerchiefs to their eyes to take away the tears or to their nose and mouth to block the stench.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the confirmed fatality toll in the Christmas tsunami has reached 76,697.  It will be 80,000 by morning.  The International Red Cross believes it could easily surpass 100,000.  And the World Health Organization now says the number of survivors affected by the disaster without water, without food, without sanitation, without all three, is five million.  Tonight as well, there are more questions being raised about why so few were warned and why American financial aid is still officially totaling at less than will be spend on the presidential inauguration.

First tonight, the unceasingly grim round-up of the fourth day of the recovery.  In Indonesia alone, officials put the death total at 45,268.  Near the quake epicenter, entire villages have been wiped out.  In India, bodies are being hastily buried in mass graves to ward off disease, although that may not be clinically necessary.  And rescuers are trying to reach some of the more remote areas around the Indian Ocean.  Throughout the 11 country region, tens of thousands of people still missing and depicted on posters, including between 2,000 and 3,000 Americans.  And tonight, more images of the devastating moments of impact have surfaced from some of the 11 blighted countries.  Amateur video shot when the tsunami hit Banda Aceh in Indonesia, showing the sheer force of the flooding.  There may be 50,000 dead in that province alone.  The videotape speaking for itself.


OLBERMANN:  The sea water swept into houses.  In this home, literally inundating the entirety of the first floor.  In Thailand, a Dutch tourist caught some of the first waves to hit the beach with his camera.  The force strong enough to knock other bystanders off their feet.  Sri Lanka, most of the island nation is just 10 to 70 feet above sea level anyway.  This is the town of Galle.

Survivors there were left stranded atop buses waiting for rescue.  More than 22,000 have died in Sri Lanka alone.  And satellite photos are now giving the first overview of the nightmare.  This was the Kalutara Beach in Sri Lanka.  The same last Sunday.  The waters receding from the beach as the tsunami collected energy like a boxer, pulling back his fists.  The force of the wave, creating extraordinary huge swirling current.  And then flooded homes and fields.  Yards inland.

The more you see, the less the question becomes how were so many killed and the more it seems to be, how did anyone survive?  To Phuket, Thailand, where “Washington Post” reporter Peter Goodman joins us by phone.  Mr. Goodman, thank you for your time.

PETER GOODMAN, “WASHINGTON POST” (via telephone):  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Do you have a sense yet of why survivors survived and the others didn‘t?  Is there any pattern evident?

GOODMAN:  Well, yeah.  I mean, we‘re talking about obviously coastal communities that got hit.  And who lives on the coast.  There‘s been a lot of attention paid to tourists.  There have been a lot of tourists killed, especially here in Thailand where it was the busiest week of the year.  But let‘s face it.  Most of the people who live by the coast around the world are people who can‘t find any other places to live.  These are people who can‘t find land to grow their rice, to grow their vegetables.  And they put their houses sometimes on stilts using whatever materials they can find.  These are often people who don‘t have the money to use bricks or concrete block or anything strong.  And they use what they can find.  Bamboo, thatch.  These are vulnerable communities.  So that‘s the first thing you can say about the people who were largely hit.

But then there‘s also a sense of random twists of fate.  Split second decisions that really determined whether people lived or died.  I was yesterday in a village of about 2,000 families where something like 600 people had been killed.  And I talked to a woman sitting in a market, an open air market.  She survived because she got out immediately as soon as she heard people shouting.  There were three people around her who didn‘t survive.  There were two people right behind her.  They just happened to be in the row behind her.  There was a guy in front of her who decided that he was concerned about what would happen to his vegetables.  He hesitated for a second.  And he didn‘t make it.  These are the sorts of decisions that determined whether he ended up lying in the sun wrapped in plastic sheeting or whether you ended up being one of the people who were looking at those people.

OLBERMANN:  There‘s another element of the life or death situation that seems inexplicable at a distance and perhaps you have it now from being there.  The extraordinary percentage of children estimated to be among the dead.  A third, perhaps.  In one Indian town on the coast, half.  Is there evidence yet as to why so many children perished?

GOODMAN:  Well, this thing hit on a Sunday morning.  So around the world, most kids were not at school.  Had where do kids go when they‘re not at school?  And they‘re playing?  When they live in coastal communities?  They go to the beach.  They go close to the water.  And so there were a lot of kids running around in these places.  Also - and we‘ve heard the story again and again, at least here in Thailand and I‘ve heard anecdotally elsewhere.  In the moment before the first wave hit, there was enormous undertow.  I talked to a guy told me that something like 2,000 yards of water just got sucked right out in the span of 15 seconds.  The sort of tidal change that usually takes hours.  It just happened instantaneously.  And that left a scene where you had fish flopping there out on an empty seabed.  And this was fascinating.  So a lot of kids went out to have a look.  And in the next instant, a lot of those kids were swept away when the water came in.

OLBERMANN:  The satellite photos that we just showed showed that exactly.  To the response, even at this distance of 9,000 miles, there seems to be a sense here that the immediate rescue efforts were not what they could have been.  Were the people who could have been the rescuers also fatalities?  Or were they just late getting there?  What happened in the immediate aftermath of all this?

GOODMAN:  A little of both.  In the most developed areas, particularly touristed areas here in Thailand, the response was a lot better than in places further out.  I‘m sitting in Phuket, which is one of the busiest, most developed resorts in Southeast Asia, getting a lot of expats from all over the world.  Here it took—Most people say two to three hours before you had military rescue craft, helicopters overhead, looking for survivors.  Now, a lot of people complained that was just much too slow.

I‘ve also talked to people who came back from outlying islands.  I went up to a Punga province, which was the hardest hit area of Thailand, about an hour and a half, two hour drive from here.  There were a lot of people who spent long nights overnight sitting up on high areas out in jungle without shelter, without food, who had no help at all.  And what happened there, remains a mystery.  The Thai government said they were to go all they could with limited resources.  There are reports that this was just not recognized as the magnitude of the disaster that it has proven to be.

OLBERMANN:  Peter Goodman, one last question and then I‘ll let you go with our thanks.  We mentioned here last night, we will be going into it in further detail about this reported decision by scientists in Thailand not to issue any kind of tsunami warning.  Is this a topic among the survivors there yet?  Or is it still mostly about the grief and the shock?

GOODMAN:  That‘s a subject that mostly people like me are talking about.  The journalists who were here are kicking that one around.  That‘s something people are discussing up in Bangkok.  Most of the people who have been affected by this are just so busy sifting through wreckage of their lives, in some cases, still looking for their relatives and friends, trying to figure out what they‘re going to do now in terms of rebuilding or simply where they‘re going to spend the night tonight or going to get the next drink of water.

But that is certainly something that will be discussed in the days and weeks to come.  There was a report in a Bangkok newspaper, “The Nation,” that the government did have a warning, at least an hour before the wave hit, but decided not to issue an evacuation order because they worried about the impact on tourism.  Now that report has not been confirmed.  High level government officials quoted in that report and that‘s certainly something worth digging into.

OLBERMANN:  Peter Goodman from the “Washington Post.” extraordinary reporting in the paper and with us here tonight.  Our great thanks for joining us from Thailand.

GOODMAN:  Thanks very much for having me.

OLBERMANN:  And now the question of warning, prefaced by what seems to have been an old wives‘ tale.  Wildlife officials say there that though the human death toll is approaching 25,000 and bodies are literally still washing up on shore, they‘re not finding dead animals.  Maybe what we think is true, says the head of a hotel based inside the Sri Lanka National Wildlife Park, that animals had have a sixth sense about earthquakes and other seismic activities.

Californians have long reported their pets moving wildly before temblors there.  But could animals really have sensed the tsunami and made for higher ground?  An Associated Press photographer made a visual pass over the wildlife park in a helicopter today and he reported no evidence of large scale animal deaths.  Even though at least 200 people drowned in the community that contains that park.

They may have that intuitively sensed a warning, the animals.  Few of the millions of people affected got any warning at all.  And whether or not that was truly unavoidable is being questioned ever more loudly in the wake of a disaster.  Firstly in the barn door department.  India, which lost as many as 7,000 in the crisis, perhaps as many as 15,000 when the outlying islands are surveyed.  India announced today it will install a warning system on the Indian Ocean complete with all the all important wave sense oz which case the direction the tsunami will take, cost, about $27 million.  Construction time about, 2 ½ years.

A United Nations official, meanwhile, says a basic system can be built for the region by this time next year.  The head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction cited what he called “a strong basis of knowledge, technology and collaboration and a real readiness to act.”

But around the Indian Ocean, where no tsunami had hit since the Krakatoa exploded in 1883, that real readiness to act was not evident last week.  There is in fact more evidence that at least two attempts at issuing tsunami warnings were quashed, one for diplomatic reasons, another, as Peter Goodman mentioned for the sake of tourism.

The “Wall Street Journal” reporting today that Australian seismologists who registered earthquake that set the tsunami off, notified their own foreign ministry within half an hour.  The foreign ministry, in turn, notified Australian embassies around the world and instructed the embassies not to notify other governments for fear of overstepping diplomatic protocol.  In Sumatra, Indonesia, the city closest to the epicenter, the equipment of one geo physicist went off so loudly, he thought it was mechanics working at a garage next door.  He spent the next hour trying to reach Indonesian governmental officials but it was Sunday morning.  Nobody was in their offices.

Even when they were, it did not matter.  Worst was the warning that wasn‘t in Thailand.  That country is already part of an international tsunami warning system, the one serving parts of the Pacific Rim.  Thailand‘s Ministry of Meteorology runs the seismological department, was holding a conference when news came in what was supposed to be an 8.6 earthquake near Sumatra.  The conference decided not to issue a warning.  The Bangkok newspaper, “The Nation: quoting unnamed sources at that conference who say the scientists were afraid to predict a tsunami because the last time they did in 1999, no wave came and tourism was affected.

But the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, to which Thailand belongs, has since 1965, promulgated a standard procedure which says that a tsunami warning must be issued in the event of any underwater earthquake measuring more than 6.5 on the Richter scale and this quake turned out to be a 9.0.  Were the Australian embassy is guilty of prioritizing diplomacy ahead of lives?  Were the Thai scientists guilty of putting tourism ahead of everything?  If you were told you had an hour or two to get to higher ground and did you and no disaster had occurred in the interim, how would you feel?  To try to balance what we know now with what we could have or should have known then, I‘m joined by a Dr. John Rundle, a seismologist and physics professor at the University of California Davis.  Dr. Rundle, good evening.

JOHN RUNDLE, SEISMOLOGIST:  Good evening to you.

OLBERMANN:  Let me put you in that room with those Thai scientists Sunday morning, their time.  They think there‘s been an 8.6 earthquake about a thousand miles away.  They remember in 1999, they had issued what turned out to be a false alarm for a tsunami.  But is there anyway you can rationalize they‘re not putting out a warning under the circumstances?  Especially such a high measure on the Richter scale?

RUNDLE:  Well, I can‘t speak to the public policy aspects or the political aspects, but if I had been in the room, I think I would have said they should do something, because an 8.6 earthquake is a very significant earthquake.

OLBERMANN:  Is there a comparison to anything in term of prediction between tsunamis and anything we might have a better association with in this country?

RUNDLE:  Well, tsunamis have the interesting property, of course, that it takes some time to get from the earthquake source, where they‘re generated, to the coastlines.  And in this case, it took multiple hours to get across the Indian Ocean.  So there‘s plenty of time if you have the right warning equipment in place to get a warning out for that sort of thing.  I think perhaps a good analogy might be hurricanes, for example, that are approaching the Florida coast where you have several hours to assess the possibilities of landing in one area or another using computer models.

OLBERMANN:  What happens if you predict a tsunami and then none occurs?  What does that do to the public?

RUNDLE:  Everyone‘s life is saved, right?  Whether you—you probably should predict it anyway.  The worst you can do, I suppose, is generate some false alarms.  And I think if I were on the beach in Thailand, I know that I would rather hear about the false alarm and have the option to leave rather than to not hear about it.

OLBERMANN:  Dr. John Rundle, seismologist and professor of physics at Cal Davis.  Great thanks for your insight tonight.

RUNDLE:  Thanks very much.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the rush to provide relief to the millions of victims reeling from the tsunami is on.  So how come this station has committed to spend less than we do for five hours of war in Iraq?  And terror tactics seen in Iraq now hit Saudi Arabia.  Terrorists there attack a troop recruitment center.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN:  The president says leaders of countries devastated by the tsunami appreciate our efforts but some say the actions by the U.S. in the early stages of the disaster only managed to alienate Muslims.  Stand by.


OLBERMANN:  Supporters the detractors alike had wondered where President Bush had been as the story of the Asia tsunami continued to unfold like a recurring and worsening nightmare.  Even after a UN relief official apologized for having called the u.s.  And the west stingy, they wondered if $15 million in immediate aid and a line of credit of $20 more was even close to being enough, which will spend $40 million private dollars on the presidential inauguration next month.

Our fourth story, both questions addressed this morning in Crawford, Texas.  The president appeared and said the $35 million figure was just an initial one.  That the U.S. would be considering debt relief to the afflicted nations.  The country would investigate a worldwide tsunami system and whether or not we needed one here.  He also took offense at the remark about stinginess.


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT:  I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed.  The - Take—For example, in the year 2004, our government provided a $2.4 billion in food and cash and humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year.  That‘s $2.4 billion.  That‘s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year was provided by the United States government.  We‘re a very generous, kind-hearted nation.


OLBERMANN:  One of the complications about setting a figure for emergency U.S. relief now is that the $35 million figure is all that was appropriated to the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Asked about his agency‘s budget, the director said, quote “We have just spent it.”  Americans have always stepped up but what about America?  To help us assess whether we as a nation are indeed doing enough, I‘m joined by David Phillips on the Council on Foreign Relations.  Until last year a State Department advisor on the Near East and the past senior advisor to UN on the coordination of humanitarian affairs.  Mr. Phillips, thanks for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN:  Is it a yes or no question?  Can we say whether or not we‘re doing enough?

PHILLIPS:  It‘s pretty clear that $15 million on day one was a pathetic display by the United States.  We needed to set the bar high so that other countries could also be generous.  By being dragged to the relief table, we sent the wrong signal.  People are dying in these affected populations.  And many of those populations are Muslim.  If we want to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, we‘re just going to have to do better.

OLBERMANN:  And doing better, if tomorrow we came out and said we‘ll take the daily cost of the war in Iraq, $193 million a day, according to the pentagon, we‘ll send that as direct aid or a week‘s worth of that or whatever, would it make a difference in terms of the perception?  Did we already damaged ourselves to say nothing of damaging the recovery efforts by coming out with those initial figures?  Or is there still time to be kind of crass about it, still come out and buy goodwill throughout the region?

PHILLIPS:  In material terms, those donations will make a significant difference.  But we lost the mantle of moral leadership.  What the president should have done, is he should have stepped in front of the TV cameras as the first world leader to organize a coalition.  He should have laid out a three-point plan, the first phase dealing with the immediate emergency.  The second phase dealing with the health implications.  The third phase focusing on reconstruction.  Because he was the last world leader to address the crisis, it looks as though the United States had little interest in addressing what happened with the tsunami.  And particularly, it looks as though we had little interest because of the affected populations were in the third world and were mostly Muslim.

OLBERMANN:  About what the UN official, Mr. Egeland said about stinginess yesterday, do you really think there was cause and effect in terms of the additional $20 million coming out?  Would this country really have given just $15 or $35 million if he had not made those remarks?

PHILLIPS:  This was going to be a rolling start.  So I am sure the United States would have stepped up and given more.  But I know Mr. Egeland well.  Instead of criticizing his remarks, he should be commended.  If the Bush administration hadn‘t been shamed by its actions as a result of the UN statement, it‘s not clear when the president would have stepped in front of the TV cameras, made a statement and offered more resources.  It‘s important that the international community come together right now.  The president talked about prevailing in this moment of need.  If that is going to happen, the U.S. has to provide leadership.  We didn‘t do that during the critical first couple days.

OLBERMANN:  David Phillips with the Council on Foreign Relations, formerly an advisor on the Near East to the current State Department and on humanitarian affairs to the UN, thanks greatly for your time tonight, sir.

PHILLIPS:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  And an appropriate reminder here about relief efforts if you are moved to make a personal donation.  The number at the American Red Cross is 1-800-HELP-NOW.  Or you can log on to for a complete list of aid agencies and phone numbers.  All of them saying food and clothing, thoughtful ideas, but not practical ones.  Money is what is needed.  Also tonight insurgents in Iraq turning to a new tactic.  They lured the authorities into the middle of a death trap.  The latest from the ground in Baghdad.


OLBERMANN:  We‘re back, and tonight, more even than usual, we need to take a break from the fully serious news.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Times Square for the one day a year when it legal to litter in New York City.  Like that has been he said enforced since, say, the day they introduced color television.  Today, testing day for the big New Years Eve confetti drop as organizers threw barrels of the little paper bits out of the seventh story window to make sure it all fell to the ground to make sure it didn‘t fall up or displace any red tail hawks or anything.  They are testing gravity.  The aerodynamics of confetti is a very complicated business.  Improvements to the process have been made every year since they began using paper, instead of the original hunks of broken glass. 

Boston.  Mayor Tom Menino has apparently dealt with every major issue facing that city, so he has turned instead to the scourge that is citizens saving their parking spots.  After spending hours digging their cars out of the snow—The practice is a tradition in Beantown—after every winter storm, residents complete their own little Big Dig, then reserve the space using chairs or cones or household garbage cans. 

But that apparently can lead to fights.  The mayor says the city trucks have now been ordered to clear the streets, so, with the parking fight issue finally resolved, the mayor can now attend to more trifling stuff like the big sinkholes in the Ted Williams Tunnel. 

And to Missouri, where noodling will soon be legal again.  I‘m not talking about that string of adult clubs down by the airport.  Noodling, also known as hogging, is a type of fishing in which the fishermen use neither rod, nor reel, nor boat.  They just waltz into the water and try to grab a catfish with their bare hands.  Come here, you.

For years, the practice has been banned, considered too dangerous, because fishermen often would reach into the muddy water and come back instead with a big handful of snapping turtle.  But the noodler lobby is a powerful one.  And the Missouri Conservation Commission finally bent and approved the sport beginning this spring.  So be sure to tune in for the special edition of COUNTDOWN to air sometime April, May, “Oddball”‘s funniest noodling accidents. 

Insurgents in Iraq perpetrating an elaborate hoax intended to draw attention to themselves before they attack.  And terrorists and nuclear weapons, an eye-opening report on how likely they are really to meet.  Those stories ahead.

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.  No. 3, Louise Outing of Massachusetts.  She won $5.6 million in the state lottery there.  Ordinarily, they give it out $200,000 a year over 20 years.  But she‘s suing.  Louise wants it now.  Louise is 94. 

No. 2, unidentified armed intruders in Swinton in Yorkshire in England.  They broke into a house, confronted the woman and two children who lived there and suddenly said, we‘re very sorry.  We broke into the wrong house.  They left.  They went next door.  And they beat up the guy who lives there, although he was not seriously hurt either. 

And, No. 1, Arian and Linda Kaufman of Newton, Kansas.  I‘m going to just read this bulletin from the Associated Press about them: “A federal grand jury has indicted a Newton couple accused of forcing mentally ill adults to work in the nude on a farm.”  That is all we know about this story and, frankly, all we want to know. 


OLBERMANN:  It was observed that the terrorists of Indonesia have not literally or unilaterally stood down because of the tsunami, but they, like much of the rest of their nation, have almost been frozen in time.  Most of the Indonesia‘s terrorists are separatists in Aceh Province, which may by itself have had 50,000 deaths. 

But, in our third story on the COUNTDOWN, far away from the crisis that is consuming the world‘s attention, terrorism continues, old tricks in new places and new tricks in old places, militants detonating a bomb-laden car at the gate of the Saudi Arabia Interior Ministry in Riyadh when their attempt to storm that compound failed.  Another blast half-an-hour later and five miles away came after a second rigged car was stopped.  This is the premise borrowed from Iraq. 

The second vehicle was destined for a recruitment center for emergency troops.  Some police were injured by the first blast.  No word yet on any casualties from the second.  The Saudi government claims tonight to have killed six or seven people tied to those car bombings. 

In Iraq, meantime, it looks like a ploy new to the area; 29 are dead much, seven of them Iraqi policemen. 

Our correspondent Richard Engel reports from Baghdad on what appears to have been a trap, based on the idea that those policemen wanted and needed to do their jobs. 


RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The plot began three days ago when several men rented a house in western Baghdad, now just scattered bricks and concrete.  Neighbors today curious to see the wreckage had also been curious about the new arrivals and, yesterday, went knocking on their door, only to be shot at. 

Stunned, the neighbors called the police, who last night stormed the house.  But it was all a trap.  Whoever had fired the shots had cleared out.  “The police burst through the door,” says this neighbor.  “Then, a bit later, I heard the explosion,” 1,800 pounds of explosives, three times the size of most car bombs in Iraq.  At least 29 people were killed, twice as many injured. 

“People are still buried under the rubble,” says this man.  It‘s part of a pre-election offensive that clearly began this week with at least 93 Iraqis killed since Monday.  And now insurgents are appealing directly to Iraqis.  Last week, NBC News reported on new video that radicals had posted on the Internet showing how to make and use a suicide bomb vest.  Today, militants were handing out hundreds of copies of the video burned on to C.D.s, giving them out after sermons at several mosques here in Baghdad. 

(on camera):  U.S. officials say elections will go ahead on schedule.  But NBC News has learned the Iraqi government plans to declare a three-day national holiday leading up to Election Day, a euphemism for a general curfew. 

Richard Engel, NBC News, Baghdad. 


OLBERMANN:  Here, that terrorists would detonate a nuclear explosive if they could is not in doubt, though an analysis today casts some doubt on their ability to do so, counterterrorism and nuclear experts telling “The Washington Post” that the nuclear capabilities of terrorists, at least for the immediate future, are relatively small, a host of technical and logistical obstacles confronting al Qaeda and other groups, starting with procurement.

Stealing or buying a nuclear device or even the most rudimentary ingredients to build one, like bomb-grade uranium, is probably tougher even than it sounds.  Then, there‘s transporting the thing, whether a bomb or parts of one, having to potentially get it through several borders or ports.  And, if a ready-made completed bomb could be obtained, there‘s the capability of detonating it despite its built-in safeguards. 

On the other hand, the experts tell “The Post” a crude bomb could, at least hypothetically, be built in a space no larger than a garage and concealed in nothing bigger than a lead-plated delivery van.  The net effect there might provide some reassurance. 

The net number of FBI counterterrorism directors since 9/11 may do exactly the opposite, six—count them, six.  Willie T. Hulon will take over the reins of the Bureau‘s counterterrorism division after a 21-year career with the FBI, most recently heading up the Detroit office. 

All of the FBI‘s senior positions have now changed hands at least once since the attacks of September 11. 

Much to analyze on the terror front.  Here to help, Juliette Kayyem, the executive director of the national security program at Harvard‘s Kennedy School of Government, and a MSNBC national security analyst. 

Juliette, good evening. 


OLBERMANN:  Let‘s just run some of these headlines, that big one first. 

KAYYEM:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  The report on terrorist nukes.  What is the bottom line here?  Is this some revisionist assessment about how serious a domestic nuclear threat would be?  Had the administration overestimated it?  Or what is the real headline on that story? 

KAYYEM:  It‘s an odd story, but I think one that most terrorism analysts have come to believe, which is, right now, al Qaeda‘s capability to detonate a nuclear bomb in America—so, let‘s focus on in America—has been hurt, mostly because of the war in Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda is dispersed. 

And, secondly—I mean, I hate to say it, but they‘re doing a pretty good job elsewhere in the world with sort of car bombs or what we saw in Saudi Arabia, what we‘re seeing in Iraq.  In other words, their focus now is in the sort of high-profile, easy terrorist incidents that cause disruption in either our ally, Saudi Arabia, or, right now, if you look at the most recent tape, in Iraq.

He has embraced the Iraq resistance against us and he I think has sort of gains a lot of favor for that amongst Iraqis.  So he‘s going to definitely be focusing on that.  What the “Washington Post” story also noted which is worth noting is that of course we have things, not terrorists.  We have nation states like Iran, like North Korea, which still pose a problem. 

Whether they pose a problem to us here in the continental United States, I think, it‘s less than if they pose a problem to either the Middle East in the case of Iran or South Korea in the case of North Korea. 

OLBERMANN:  Second headline, Willie T. Hulon. 

KAYYEM:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  How could the FBI possibly run through six directors of counterterrorism in three years and three months? 


OLBERMANN:  If it was a sports team or a cable news network, they would say it was in freefall. 

KAYYEM:  Right.  I think that‘s exactly right. 

The FBI has done a lot to try to sort of reenergize itself after a lot of the mistakes both leading up to September 11 and then after.  I think what you‘re starting to hear from the counterterrorism community, both within the FBI and the intelligence agencies, is that there is an incredible amounts of frustration about how the war in Iraq has distracted from the sort of terrorism or counterterrorism efforts in the rest of the world. 

And so what you‘re seeing is a lot of personnel changes based on frustration or, in the case of the CIA, based on firings.  And we‘re just going to be seeing that in the next two or three years.  The problem is, of course, these people leave with a lot of historical experience and we don‘t actually know who is replacing them in terms of their experience, sort of the big picture. 

OLBERMANN:  Great, the institutional memory walking out the door. 

KAYYEM:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC‘s terrorism expert Juliette Kayyem, we appreciate your time tonight.  Thank you. 

KAYYEM:  Thank you, Keith.            

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, ever asked yourself this question?  How loud would Howard Dean have to scream before the noise he made would make your hair catch fire?  Believe it or not, tonight, there‘s a statistical answer. 

And we will remember the life and the career of “Law & Order” star Jerry Orbach.  Those stories ahead.

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The bad gift boycott is starting now. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They had heard about it on the radio, to trade their losers for gift cards.  Some people bought in unusual stuff. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That gorilla that sang was pretty weird.  But, no kidding.  The toilet seat, somebody dropped that off. 

LEROY CHIAO, NASA ASTRONAUT:  The only failing was that the last crew had gotten into our food and had failed to actually report to the ground what they had taken out of our allotment.  Basically, what we did was, we cut in half the what I‘ll call real food intake.  That is, the normal meats and potatoes, vegetables, that kind of thing.


QUESTION:  New Year‘s resolutions?

BUSH:  I‘ll let you know.  Already gave you a hint on one, which is my waistline.  I‘m trying to set an example.



WILLIAM HUNG, SINGER:  Hey, this is William Hung.  Be sure to watch Keith Olbermann‘s COUNTDOWN on New Year‘s Eve. 


OLBERMANN:  The Census Bureau is out with, what else, new numbers.  The old phrase, there‘s a sucker born every minute, actually, it could be as many as eight of them.  There‘s a new American born every eight seconds, to say nothing of the immigrants arriving at a rate of one every 26 seconds.

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, numbers.  We were fascinated enough by numbers to frame a newscast with them. 

And, as COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny tells us now, there are always more new and more ridiculous numbers and more books being written about them. 

Monica, good evening.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  We never run out, Keith.  Good evening. 

The authors of a book about nothing but numbers call them magical, saying trivial statistics can give meaning to mundane items.  For example, ever wonder how many people say they would clone themselves if they were allowed?  Fourteen percent.  Apparently, we like ourselves as much as we like our numbers.  So, we gathered a group of children, young girls, in fact, to give us the right answers to this new math. 



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Do you know how much the square root of 2,130 is? 

DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ACTOR:  Forty-six-point-one-five-one-nine-two-three-zero-four.


NOVOTNY (voice-over):  “Rain Man” knew, the only thing you can only down on, numbers.  We count them down. 

OLBERMANN:  Our fifth story tonight.

Our four story on the COUNTDOWN. 

NOVOTNY:  And add them up. 

Numbers are everywhere.  Now some of the wackiest in this book by David Boyle and Anita Roddick filled with figures that compute the unusual, begging the question, how many numbers can you count? 

If you stacked all the “Monopoly” money ever printed, how many miles would the pile stretch? 




NOVOTNY:  If you wanted to light someone‘s hair on fire, how loud would you have to shout in decibels? 


NOVOTNY:  Almost.  How many facial muscles does it take to frown? 


NOVOTNY:  To smile? 


NOVOTNY:  Stuff that smile with a cheese burger and you‘ll be a part of what percentage of American eating at fast-food restaurants every day? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s probably pretty high; 70 percent?


NOVOTNY:  And what is the average weight of food consumed in one‘s average lifetime? 



NOVOTNY:  The equivalent of six elephants, that is.  And since elephants never forget, here‘s one you won‘t.  The average number of U.S.  banks robbed every day is:


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m a drug dealer, not a bank robber. 

NOVOTNY:  No matter who you are, there‘s one number everyone knows. 

(on camera):  Do you have a lucky number? 


NOVOTNY:  What is it? 


NOVOTNY:  How come? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Because it is Blackjack. 


NOVOTNY:  How come? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It is the meaning of life. 


NOVOTNY:  If that‘s not enough, here are three more; 25 percent of Americans have appeared on television.  Five Americans are injured by shopping carts every hour.  Be careful.  And the longest recorded flight of a chicken clocked in at 13 seconds. 

OLBERMANN:  Do you know what that 42 is about the meaning of life? 

NOVOTNY:  I wasn‘t quite sure. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, I do.  But I can‘t tell you, because we don‘t have enough time.  We‘ll save it—ask me as a question in the news quiz, next news quiz. 

NOVOTNY:  We‘ll throw it in tomorrow. 

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny on number patrol, many thanks. 

We always go from our No. 2 story to the entertainment news in “Keeping Tabs.”  And tonight, we start with a sad shock.  The actor Jerry Orbach is dead.  He made the NBC show “Law & Order” what it was for 12 seasons, as the world-weary, but always wise gumshoe Lenny Briscoe.

Just weeks ago, his publicist revealed that, last spring, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that treatment had been effective and he would begin shooting his new role on one of the “Law & Order” offshoots shortly.  It was not to be.  He died of the disease last night in New York.  Jerry Orbach was not just an actor in TV or in films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  He was also probably Broadway‘s foremost song and dance man from such musicals as “Chicago” and “42nd Street.”

Tonight, in fact, the lights on Broadway marquees dark for a minute in tribute.  And, by the way, when I was a kid, he showed up at a baseball card collector‘s convention and was very nice to everybody.  Jerry Orbach was 69 years old. 

Entertainment rolls on.  And this seemingly was just a matter of time.  The folks at “Jeopardy” have managed to find a way to bring Ken Jennings back to the show.  He was defeated after 74 consecutive victories, $2.5 in winnings.  But today, producers announced a super tournament to air in February or March, with the finals in May.  It will pit Jennings against two of the show‘s top winners from the old days, when contestants were only permitted to play five times. 

That was before the states ratified the 47th Amendment to the Constitution, better known as the Game Show Contestant Protection Act. 

Who is going to protect U.S. Airways‘ employees from their bosses? 

How does this sound?  The bad news is, we need to you work New Year‘s Eve. 

The worst news is, we need you to work for free.  Oh, boy.


OLBERMANN:  By now, you know all about baggage gate.

Unhappy employees of U.S. Airways going against their bosses and their union and stage massive sick-outs over the holiday weekend; 10,000 bags go undelivered; 400 flights go unflown.  And the general feeling is, the airline is not long for the sky. 

But, in our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, U.S. Airways, not going gently into that good night, has a foolproof solution to prevent a repetition this holiday weekend and maybe even restore the carrier‘s good name, get employees to work for free in Philadelphia over New Year‘s. 

U.S. Airways issuing a memo yesterday asking those employees in the area with this coming holiday weekend off to come in gratis—quote—“It promises to be a rewarding opportunity to learn more about the operation of our airline and come face to face with our customers,” to say nothing of the opportunity to learn new swear words from those customers.

On the surface, anyway, this appears to be part of the company‘s attempt to cut more cuts, perhaps bring the airline out of bankruptcy, perhaps even, conflict of interests warning, secure financing from its largest creditor, General Electric, which is the parent company of NBC. 

To see if this request passes the ineffectual middle management request, we turn to frequent flier and stand-up comedian Jeff Caldwell. 

Jeff, good evening. 

JEFF CALDWELL, COMEDIAN:  Good to see you, Keith.   

OLBERMANN:  Obviously, you travel quite a bit in what you do.  Would you want to be greeted by employees who have given up their holiday weekend and working for free for an employer they don‘t really care for? 

CALDWELL:  You know, I‘m usually a pretty courteous traveler anyway.  But I‘m guessing, on that flight, I would be pretty choosy about when I hit that call button, maybe not push for the second Diet Coke.  Ice, no ice, whatever, whatever is good for you. 

OLBERMANN:  Just put it down slowly.  We‘re happy with that.


OLBERMANN:  Reverse the equation.  We‘ll make you not the passenger in the equation, but the employee from Camden, New Jersey, and they want you in Philly on New Year‘s Eve for free.  What do you do when they ask you? 

CALDWELL:  Based my record as an employee, I was generally out sick whether there was a labor situation or not.  And so that would be—my replacement would be getting that memo.  And that would be an issue for his conscience to wrestle with. 

OLBERMANN:  One thing I‘m wondering about in this is if we might be missing something between the lines here, because the airline, in asking the employees to come in free, also said that it would be conducting what it called an enhanced review of each worker‘s attendance record from December 3 to January 3 to see who should be disciplined or fined or whatever. 

Are they saying to the guys who did the sick-out, you owe us a freebie this weekend and this is your chance?

CALDWELL:  Has anyone considered that maybe these guys were actually sick?  All I heard this past summer was, maybe there‘s a problem with E coli in the airline‘s water supply.  Maybe they couldn‘t dodge the bacteria bullet anymore, you know? 

OLBERMANN:  And let‘s not forget we‘re still short of flu vaccine, even though there has not really been a real flu epidemic yet. 

CALDWELL:  Good point. 

OLBERMANN:  Now, is it insanity or is it chutzpah or what is it to ask employees who‘ve already in some cases taken 40 percent pay cuts to work a free holiday weekend?  Is that what has made American business great? 

CALDWELL:  Keith, I see it as a beautiful example of belief in the generosity of the human spirit, really, especially at the holidays. 

Hey, these are the managers who have driven U.S. Airways into bankruptcy for the second time.  I mean, I‘m thinking maybe they should just reclassify themselves as a nonprofit organization at this point.  It might be simpler. 

OLBERMANN:  No frills, no profits, no paychecks. 


OLBERMANN:  I think we have just created a slogan for them. 

CALDWELL:  Absolutely.  No peanuts either. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s right.  Thank God that‘s what you said. 


OLBERMANN:  Comedian Jeff Caldwell, thanks for helping us take a break from the very grim news of the day.  We appreciate it, sir.

CALDWELL:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  A programing reminder here.

The tsunami, you know about that.  The relief effort worldwide, how and what is being done and how can you help—an MSNBC special report is next, hosted by Alex Witt. 

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Good night.  Good luck. 



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