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'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for July 29

Read the transcript to the Friday show

Guest: Derrick Pitts

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  ... rate suicide bombers were these guys?  First Ibrahim Muktir Said (ph) and Ramzi Mohammed (ph) couldn‘t light their deadly candles.  Now, today, they not only surrendered, they surrendered on a balcony in full view of the neighbors, having first surrendered, at the insistence of the police, their shirts and pants.

Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

All four would-be London bombers alive and in custody, two found in North Kensington and on home video, a third at his brother‘s house near Rome.

Big switch on stem cells.  Senate majority leader Frist breaks with the president, calls for increased federal funding of stem-cell research.

And who you calling an Oompa-Loompa?  That‘s Dr. Oompa-Loompa to you. 

A chocolate factory is developing cocoa-based prescription drugs.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

If they had not been would-be mass murderers, you would almost feel embarrassed for them.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, in a day of sweeping developments in the London manhunts, the three known remaining would-be bombers arrested.  Exclusive information tonight about a fifth bomber.  That‘s ahead from Lisa Myers.

One in circumstances belying their supposed sophistication was arrested at his own brother‘s home, the other two in a west London neighborhood, their ignominious surrender captured in exclusive videotape from our affiliated British network ITV.

The man on the left, Ibrahim Muktir Said.  He is the one who allegedly tried to blow himself up on a double-decker bus in Achne (ph), east London.  The suspect on the right, Ramzi Mohammed, thought to be responsible for the failed bombing at the Oval Tube station, police ordering both men to strip down to their underwear, then accepting their surrender, then taking them away for questioning.  The bellowed warning, Take your clothes off, come out with your hands on your head, and you‘ll be all right.

In a moment, we‘ll go live to London for an update at this hour.

But first, ITV correspondent James Mates (ph) walks us through rest of the dramatic raid step by step.


JAMES MATES, ITV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The moment the police close in on the suspected Hackney bus bomber.  The sounds of shots is almost certainly tear gas rounds being fired into the flat from the top-floor balcony.

Shortly, you‘ll see wafts of gas blowing back out of the now-open door.

Eyewitnesses spoke of hearing voices at this time inside the flat, shouting at men to take their clothes off and come outside.  On a balcony two floors below, police wearing gas masks are trying to get into another flat.  It appears to be empty.  But right in the middle of an operation, to capture men who‘ve already tried to blow themselves up, a child appears.  Apparently attracted by the police dog, he wants to talk to the officer.

But it gets worse.  Another child comes out on the balcony.  It‘s a policing nightmare, the very real possibility of an explosion of any kind and children around.  Eventually, an adult appears, but still followed by the children, the officer is forced to give up his attempted entry.

Two floors above, two men, naked, at least from the waist up, have been ordered at gunpoint out onto the balcony there at the top of the screen.  The man on the left appears to be following orders to lower his trousers.  Both men seem to be suffering from the effects of gas.

The sound of shouted orders from the police can be heard, though the words are hard to make out.  The identity of the man on the right, the first to be turned around and taken away, is unknown.  But police sources have told ITV News they believe him to be the man who tried to explode a device on a train near Oval Tube station in south London.

The man on the left is believed to be, and bears a striking resemblance to the photographs of Muktir Said Ibrahim.  He‘s alleged to have attempted to blow up himself and the number 26 bus in Hackney on July the 21st.

An armed policeman covering every move, he is then ordered to approach and turn around.  Ibrahim was born in East Africa, coming from Eritrea to this country as a child.  Despite having served more than two years in jail as a violent criminal, he was given British citizenship less than a year ago.

As Ibrahim was led away, police are confident that eight days after these men tried but failed to bring brutal carnage to London‘s transport system, they and their accomplices are now safely in custody.

James Mate, ITV News.


OLBERMANN:  Only hours later, the investigation spread across the Continent, police tracking down the fourth suspected bomber in Rome.  He is Azman Hussein (ph), alternately known as Hussein Azman, a naturalized British citizen from Somalia, suspected of having targeted the subway train near the Shepherd‘s Bush station.

He kept using his cell phone as he fled England.  They traced him to the homes of his brother-in-law and then his own brother, that final arrest putting four alleged bombers in custody tonight.  In fact, there is a fifth.  Exclusive details on that in a moment.

The first of the suspects, Yasin Hassan Omar, arrested Wednesday in Birmingham in central England.  Compared to his alleged co-conspirators, he had put up something of a struggle.  Police had to TASER him.

For the latest on the dramatic developments of this day, we go now to the scene of the arrests at the Delgarno (ph) Gardens Apartments, and our correspondent James Hattori.  Good morning, James.  Is the relief there palpable?  Is London perceptibly different at this late hour?

JAMES HATTORI, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, you know, it‘d be an overstatement and probably not to mention trite to say that everyone here is breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of the arrests.  But I think it would be fair to say that a lot of people, when they wake up tomorrow, will be very happy at what has transpired here, and as they make their trips into the city on public transport, as they must do, they can probably take some comfort.

But at the same time, Scotland Yard today issued a fresh warning that people should remain vigilant, because the danger still exists.

I mean, there are a lot of questions here.  Who organized these

people?  What about the first series of bombings on July 7?  Clearly, these

·        they were not operating on their own.  So there‘s a lot of investigating to do, a lot of ties—a lot of loose ends to tie up still.

OLBERMANN:  More practically speaking, has there been any indication yet from Scotland Yard or from any of the counterterrorist organizations that security measures are going to remain at their previous levels in London, even though four, possibly five, bombers from the 21st of July have been arrested?

HATTORI:  I don‘t think there‘s been any official word.  But the presumption is that, no, the level will not be decreased, because they believe that there are still a lot of people out there.  By one account, of by some experts, there may be 20 or 30 people involved in these two plots in one way or another, not only in England, but perhaps, as we‘ve seen, in Italy.  Some of these suspects, the deceased bombers from the first attack, are from Pakistan, or had ties to Pakistan, there are questions for Pakistan.  There‘s a man in Zambia who‘s been arrested, who British authorities want to question.

So until this is all wrapped up, they‘re not going to probably be able to lower the threat level.  And if ever, for that matter, because this is a long-term issue that they‘re facing here, and they recognize that they‘ve got to make more of an outreach to the community and get at the root causes, if they can, to try and deal with this.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, James, that scene at the place where you are now, Delgarno Gardens, early today, with these two men stripped to their shorts, the shout was directed at Mohammed.  Are we getting the feeling that the police knew that this man Ramzi Mohammed was there, but that the presence of the second man, Muktir Said Ibrahim, was a surprise, a bonus?  Do we have any indication on that yet?

HATTORI:  Not clear, you know, although one expert I did talk to, a former Metropolitan Police investigator, said that he believed it might have been—very well might have been a twofer.  They were lucky, it was a coincidence.  On the other hand, he said they had a lot of information, and it very well could have been the result of surveillance.

And one other thing I‘ll mention is that one witness told us that he saw a man leading the police to that flat, giving the impression that perhaps that‘s how they ended up there.

OLBERMANN:  First rule of failed crime is supposed to be, split up.  Correspondent James Hattori in London.  Our great thanks for staying up late on our behalf, sir.

Today‘s arrests, the result of what Scotland Yard and the London Metropolitan Police called the biggest manhunt in British history.  But it may be bigger than we even know, officially, anyway.  We know there was a fifth backpack bomb found unexploded, and now, as chief investigative correspondent Lisa Myers reports exclusively, it turns out there was a fifth would-be bomber to go with it.



Sources close to the investigation tell NBC News that the unnamed man arrested today is 22-year-old Wahbi Mohammed (ph).  And police suspect he is the fifth bomber, who abandoned his backpack full of explosives in this park.

Mohammed is the brother of this suspected bomber, who was arrested today in a roundup which sources say was the result of strong police work and mistakes by the bombers, who clearly had no backup plan when their bombs failed to explode.

RICHARD HAHN, FORMER FBI AGENT:  They went back to their own residences.  They used their own phones, their own cell phones, all of which allowed the police to not only identify them but to track them as they tried to flee.

MYERS:  How did police find the bombers?  Police sources say they received a tip this morning from someone who‘d spotted these two suspects staying together.  And U.S. and Italian sources say the arrest in Italy occurred because this bomber used his cell phone to call a relative as he moved across Europe, and authorities monitored the calls.  Still, today, British authorities warned that a very real threat remains.

CHARLES SHOEBRIDGE, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Those who organized, planned, and provided these two cells with explosives and bombs are still at large.

MYERS:  So far, there is no evidence the two cells knew of each other.  They were from different areas, of different ethnic backgrounds which experts say suggests a larger professional operation.


There are probably more cells out there, and they‘re probably some very professional controllers who are running this thing, perhaps not even in the United Kingdom.

MYERS (on camera):  Western intelligence officials tell NBC News there is reason to believe that both cells got guidance from someone in Pakistan.  But so far, the trail does not lead all the way to Osama bin Laden.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN:  As Lisa just suggested, think of terrorism, and sooner or later you will think of bin Laden.  But did he order the recent terror attacks in Egypt, Iraq, and London?  Did he just inspire them?  Does it matter which?

And with friends like these, who needs Democrats?  The Senate majority leader breaking ranks with the president and announcing his support for stem-cell research.  He‘s already been called by one of his previous supporters a sell-out.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN:  Ask U.S. officials, and they‘ll claim it does not even matter that Osama bin Laden is still at large.  His ability to communicate, they say, has been severely compromised by life on the run.

But as our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, discovers in our fourth story, with recent attacks in London and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, the 9/11 mastermind may no longer need to call the shots.


ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  American forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hunting for bin Laden last May.  U.S. officials say they‘ve rounded up hundreds of al Qaeda operatives over the years, pinning bin Laden down, making it difficult for him to communicate with his troops or order attacks.

CIA director Porter Goss recently with Tom Brokaw.

PORTER GOSS, CIA DIRECTOR:  I think we‘ve certainly chased Osama bin Laden off the playing field, in the sense that he can be out front doing what he wants to do.  I would suggest he‘s definitely on defense as opposed to offense.

MITCHELL:  But bin Laden‘s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was able to deliver yet another threatening video only last month.  And other intelligence officials say bin Laden can still communicate through a network of couriers.  More important, to continue his reign of terror, he doesn‘t have to order attacks like those in London or Sharm el-Sheikh.

In the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia, a spreading network of homegrown terror cells may take direction from bin Laden, or just be inspired by him.

DAN BEN JAMIN, TERRORISM EXPERT:  Bin Laden has done his primary work.  He‘s spread the ideology that he developed.  And that‘s been vitally important for the movement.  But that doesn‘t mean that bin Laden‘s influence is over.  He may not be pulling the strings on particular operations, but his influence has been enormous.  And we have a large jihadist movement to contend with.

MITCHELL:  Especially in Iraq, where insurgents have aligned themselves with bin Laden as they murder Iraqis and Americans.

(on camera):  The bottom line, in some ways it no longer matters whether bin Laden was behind a particular attack.  He has spawned so many imitators around the world that the U.S. and its allies are still going to be targeted by terrorists, an enduring problem whether bin Laden is captured or not.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, Congress heads on vacation, and they still know what President Bush may do this summer, make John Bolton a recess appointment.

And I thought June was the critical time to buy bridal gowns.  The stampede of rushing, blushing brides sacrificing dignity for a deal in Filene‘s Basement.


OLBERMANN:  Back now, and as usual we pause the COUNTDOWN to explore the stories you would find below the fold and next to the Jumble puzzle.  It‘s brides in midstride, bad karaoke, and the life aquatic with yours truly.

Let‘s play Oddball.

To a basement in downtown Chicago, Filene‘s Basement, most specifically.  It‘s the annual running of the brides.  And there they go, hunting out superlative bargains like a lion on the Serengeti stalks a wounded wildebeest.  These brides (INAUDIBLE) would not be denied.  With more nonsensical screaming and hooting than an Oprah audience, it takes the ladies about 60 seconds to tear 1,300 dresses off the racks, pile them up, and start trying on the ones they like.

The dresses are both domestic and imported.  The savings can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollarines.  They get brand names at discount prices, and all it cost the blushing brides are a couple of bruises and a large chunk of their dignity.

Then they all run next door to try to find husbands.

Now to Laos, the scene of the ASEAN gala dinner, the always highly anticipated finale to that global diplomatic conference.  Secretaries of state, foreign ministers from all over the world loosen up and shake their groove things as a sign of solidarity and lack of talent.  You may remember Colin Powell‘s attempt to wow the ASEAN conference last year.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE (rapping):  You can go to Beijing, they‘re all waiting for you.  Don‘t hold your breath for the E.U.


OLBERMANN:  The Village People then broke up in protest.

This year, Condi Rice was previously engaged.  Give her a lot of credit for seeing that one coming down Broadway with its doors open.  Anyway, she sent the deputy secretary of state, Robert Zolick (ph), to manage this, or mangle this Western classic.

ROBERT ZOLICK, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE (singing):  ... daughter, Clementine.  Oh, my darling, oh, my darling, oh, my darling Clementine, thou art lost and gone forever...


OLBERMANN:  The Rex Harrison school of singing.

But this year‘s breakout star was Russia‘s foreign minister.  He decided that addressing the crowd in a knockoff of the Darth Vader costume wagging a plastic sword would help the former Soviet state buck its dictatorial image.

You don‘t know the power of the Dark Side.

Finally, to the Audubon Society in Bristol, Rhode Island.  This lobster is sad, so sad.  This here is what you call a blue lobster.  It‘s a genetic freak.  We don‘t know much about this thing, other than it‘s a girl, and both its parents had some kind of gene that made it look like a blue Sharpie had leaked all over it.  We also know she has the tank all to herself, because, well, because she‘s being shellfish.

There‘s also not much literature about blue lobsters, so I asked the COUNTDOWN staff what they knew.  They said most lobsters are kind of brown when you catch them and red when you eat them.  They said blue lobsters show up once in a blue moon.  And they said this guy, or this gal, is probably related to Papa Smurf somehow.

So you guessed right.  Half the staff is on vacation or out sick today.

The president might be a little sick tonight after what Bill Frist had to say about stem cell research.

A surprise sound from the solar system,   An eerie sound track currently emanating from Saturn.

Those stories ahead.

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, the state of New Mexico, a ruling by its court of appeals, has, for reasons it would take 44 minutes to explain, given every resident the right to put slot machines in his own house.

Number two, Chinese scientists, always pushing the envelope.  They‘re sending a team to Lake Kanasai (ph) in Shinshang (ph) near the Russian border.  The researchers are hoping to pin down what‘s been eating horses and cattle along the lakefront.  Why, lake monsters, of course, big red fish, supposedly up to 50 feet long, they say.

And number one, the Artemis Group of Berlin in Germany.  The soccer‘s World Cup coming to the Olympic stadium there next year.  The investment company says it will open just blocks away a giant 60-room legal brothel, complete with a staff of 100, a movie theater, a sauna, a restaurant, a buffet restaurant.

Hey, buddy, don‘t drag that across the cold cuts.


OLBERMANN:  It has staggered his supporters and his critics alike.  His opposite number in the opposing party has already expressed his admiration.  It has astounded, even angered, those who saw him participate in the filibuster against people of faith evangelical presentation during the spring.

It will redefine the political landscape on the issue, and it has pitted the Republican president on one side versus the Republican Senate majority leader and the widow of the conservative hero of heroes on the other.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, Senator Bill Frist has today come out in favor of increasing federal financing for embryonic stem cell research.

Craig Crawford joins me in a moment.

First, here is our Capitol Hill correspondent, Chip Reid.


SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  We were all once embryos.

CHIP REID, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Republican leader Bill Frist says he does believe a human embryo is a human life.

FRIST:  But to me, it isn‘t just a matter of faith, it‘s a matter of science.

REID:  Today, in a sharp break with President Bush, Frist declared his support for expanded federal funding of stem cell research using human embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.

FIRST:  ... or your dad has Parkinson‘s.  If your sister has a spinal cord injury, your views will be swayed more powerfully than you can imagine by the hope that cure will be found in these magnificent cells.

REID:  He new stance is a victory for research advocates like Nancy Reagan, who today thanked Senator Frist in a statement and said, “Every day that goes by without cures is another day that families watch their loved ones suffer.”

Frist, a heart transplant surgeon before going into politics, is widely respected on medical issues.  Senator Arlen Specter, who recently underwent treatment for lymphoma cancer and carries an hourglass to symbolize that time slipping away, praised Frist‘s speech and said it could make an enormous difference in the Senate.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  What Senator Frist has had to say is weighty and I think may bring us all together on this issue, so...

REID:  Fifty percent of Americans support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, according to a recent MSNBC poll.  Thirty-six percent are opposed, but many of those are vehemently opposed.  Today, anti-abortion activists, who say destroying a human embryo is the taking of a human life, accused Senator Frist of betrayal and said they will refuse to work for him if he runs for president in 2008.

PATRICK MAHONEY, CHRISTIAN DEFENSE COALITION:  We are not going to go out and put up signs, make phone calls, walk districts, canvas, hand out literature for a candidate who will abandon us!

REID:  And conservative members of Congress denounced Frist‘s position in press conferences and on the Senate floor.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK ®, KANSAS:  There‘s a very basic principle that‘s involved here, though, and that‘s whether or not the young human embryo is a life or a piece of property.

REID (on camera):  The House already passed a bill expanding embryonic stem cell research.  Now it looks likely the Senate will do the same, putting the Senate and Senator Frist on a collision course with President Bush.

Chip Reid, NBC News, the Capitol.


OLBERMANN:  We‘ll explore the implications of all that with Craig Crawford in a moment, added (ph) this, as rumors swirled of a recess appointment for John Bolton at the U.N.  Bolton admitted another “oopsie” that will give Democrats something else to hit him over the head with.  As first reported by David Shuster of MSNBC‘s “HARDBALL” last Thursday, Bolton, like all such nominees, was given a form full of boilerplate questions to answer, including one that asked if he had been interviewed or asked to supply any information in connection with any administrative, including an inspector general, congressional or grand jury investigation within the past five years, except routine congressional testimony.  Check the yes box or the no box.

As Shuster reported, Bolton checked no, but the correct answer was yes.  He had, as Shuster also reported, been interviewed by the State Department‘s inspector general in 2003, as that officer tried to figure out how this country had erroneously concluded that had Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material from Niger.  While Democrats renewed their call for President Bush to withdraw Bolton‘s controversial nomination, more hints that the president is leaning towards the recess appointment option.  Once Congress adjourned for the summer, he could appoint Bolton, who could then not be removed until after the swearing-in of the next Congress in January, 2007.

Compared to the Bolton process, the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee of John Roberts were supposed to resemble a quick dance in the spring rain.  But something came acropper this afternoon.  Republican leadership leaked word that it was so confident that it could get Roberts confirmed before the first Monday in October that the hearings would not have to start earlier than the first Tuesday in September.  That changed, and suddenly.

Senate judiciary chairman Arlen Specter walked out of a leadership meeting just before 4:00 PM Eastern time today and said, We thought we had an arrangement, and it fell through.  The arrangement, anticipating minimal friction from the Democrats, would have obviated the need for Republicans to threaten to start the hearings as early as August 29, cutting the Senate‘s vacation.  Now that could still happen.  Nobody is saying what.

The president‘s win today before getting out of town for August.  The House got a roll of stamps and mailed him his energy bill, 275 votes to 156.

I‘d like to call in Craig Crawford now, senior columnist of “Congressional Quarterly,” MSNBC analyst and author of “Attack the Messenger,” coming soon to a book store near you.  Good evening, Craig.


OLBERMANN:  Well, let‘s go back to this headline.  Is there any measure you can supply of just how much of an impact Bill Frist‘s statement on stem cell research is going to have on that debate?

CRAWFORD:  On the debate on stem cell research, I think it‘ll probably put the brakes on the president‘s initiative in this area.  But even beyond that, I would say it‘s almost the first sound of the old “Quack, quack,” Keith.  I think this is a real sign the president‘s becoming a lame duck, when the leader of the Senate in his own party breaks ranks on such a major issue with the White House.

OLBERMANN:  What happens, though?  Can you have a leader—the majority leader of the Senate and the majority leader of the House going against each other on such a—if not vital issue, then such a high-profile issue?  Can you have that, either?

CRAWFORD:  Well, it‘s hard to imagine that and anything getting done.  At least, not what the president wants in this arena.  I do think the consensus on Capitol Hill is moving toward the science on this and not the political argument that the pro-life movement has been pushing.  I think also, Senator Frist is moving to try and broaden the reach of the Republican Party beyond its dependence on pro-life conservatives, which is a dangerous move because President Bush‘s dependence on that vote is what got him in the White House twice.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, the National Pro-Life Action Center already issued a statement tonight, calling  him—Frist, that is—a sell-out.  Craig, there is going to be necessarily a Frist-Bush fight on this, to some degree, isn‘t there?  I mean, if Bush had been willing to compromise on this—obviously, Frist went to him first and said, Look, I‘m going to say this.  And then he said, You have to vote your conscience.  If he were going to compromise, there would have been a joint statement, wouldn‘t there?

CRAWFORD:  You‘d think.  Also, if the White House just backs out of this debate altogether and doesn‘t push it any further, that could be one avenue for them.  The trouble with that is, and I think we‘ve seen a lot of tests of the president in this area, is, Was he serious in his campaigns in the promises that he made to conservative voters on gay rights, banning gay marriage, and in this debate, as well?  Or was it just for votes, or does he really mean it?  And so now that he doesn‘t have to take these stands for votes and winning elections, it‘ll be interesting to see if he really pushes some of these issues.

OLBERMANN:  How much do we think Arlen Specter had to do with this, I mean, coming out and saying, If we‘d had stem cell research in this country, maybe I wouldn‘t have gotten cancer?  Do you think, practically speaking, that may have influenced Frist?

CRAWFORD:  It could have.  Senators are very loyal to each other, and you know, they‘re much closer than they are in the House.  There are so many of them in the House.  And I think Senator Specter‘s condition certainly had a great impact on a lot of other senators.  But also, I think Senator Frist‘s medical background in this—in science probably informs him in this decision, as much as anything else.

OLBERMANN:  Apparently, he just got the degree today.


OLBERMANN:  Speaking of Specter, changing topics, what happened with Roberts?

CRAWFORD:  Roberts could actually face a little more trouble, not that it wouldn‘t be voted to confirm him, but they could get a little more friction, even out of some Republicans, connecting it to this Bolton story, if the White House did—the president did go for a recess appointment of Bolton.  That would aggravate a lot of senators, even Republicans, the challenge to senatorial authority there, and that could actually make some trouble for the Roberts hearings.

OLBERMANN:  So when they say there are risks involved in making a recess appointment, it‘s risk of revenge.


OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly.” 

How many days until the book?

CRAWFORD:  Oh, it‘s coming in October, but available now on Amazon.

OLBERMANN:  Great.  Thanks, as always.

CRAWFORD:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And one more political story, emphasis on the word “one.”  We‘ll let my friend Jay Leno explain it just as he did on Wednesday night‘s edition of the “Tonight” show.


JAY LENO, HOST, “TONIGHT” SHOW:  Did you see what did he today when he walked by a group of reporters?  I have not doctored this.  This is the actual footage.  This is the raw feed.  We have not changed this in any way.  Watch the president here as he goes by the press.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... at 1:00 in the morning tomorrow morning, on CAFTA, Republicans sitting on the fence, the Republicans...


LENO:  What was that all about?  What was that all about?


OLBERMANN:  White House spokesman Scott McLellan said he would not dignify questions about the president‘s gesture with comment.  He didn‘t make a gesture, for that matter.  But the reporters who witnessed that gesture on Capitol Hill said unanimously that it appeared that was the president‘s thumb, not any one of his fingers, which he raised, and it was as a question was asked him about the Central American trade pact CAFTA.  Of course, the finger theory would be funnier—not true, just funnier.

Speaking of funnier, chocolate-flavored drugs sounds positively hysterical until you realize that the Mars company is serious about them.  And speaking of things too sweet—oh, Paula, Paula, Paula.  It‘s not enough she can‘t sing, now Fox has hired a special investigator to investigate her special.  Ideal hands—or “Idol” hands, and ideal hands, are the devil‘s tools.


OLBERMANN:  You‘ve heard people say, you may have said it yourself, I‘m addicted to chocolate.  Yes, well, wait until the Mars bars people and some pharmaceutical companies develop cocoa-based prescription drugs.  Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN: Potentially, we‘re on the verge of the entirely new meaning to that colloquialism “chocoholic.”  Our correspondent in Willy Wonka‘s chocolate and blood-thinners factory is Kevin Tibbles.


KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In search of a little comfort, generations have reached for chocolate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Chocolate makes my day.

TIBBLES:  Now Mars, the maker of everything from M&Ms to Snickers, says beyond comfort, certain cocoas found in chocolate could actually be good for you.

DR. HAROLD SCHMITZ, MARS, INC.:  What really is exciting, we feel, is that we can leverage this discovery about cocoa and the cocoa flavanols into entirely new food products that are purpose-designed to deliver health benefits.

TIBBLES:  Mars says its 15 years of research shows some cocoa molecules encourage blood flow and could in the future treat diabetes and stroke, even protect against cancer.  The company says it‘s now talking to pharmaceutical firms about developing new cocoa-based medicines.

(on camera):  But there‘s a lot more involved here than simply peeling back the paper and taking a bite.  Many researchers say they‘re still waiting to see the proof of cocoa‘s benefits.

DR. JEANETTE NEWTON KEITH, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO:  We need to see the science that supports the beneficial effect of this chocolate-based drug before we can strongly recommend it to all of our patients.

TIBBLES (voice-over):  Americans spend more money on chocolate than any other snack.



JOHNNY DEPP:  I can see that.


TIBBLES:  And hit films like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” celebrate just how big a role the candy plays in our lives.  Some day, a derivative of that candy may actually assist in improving our health.

Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, Chicago.


OLBERMANN:  If chocolate might soon be available only with a prescription, then a television network can go and hire an independent counsel.  We segue now into our nightly round-up of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  Fox taking the Ken Starr/Archibald Cox approach to investigate claims of misconduct on its own hit show, “American Idol,” specifically, claims made by former contestant Corey Clark that he and “Idol” judge Paula Abdul had had a sexual relationship, Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori—hi, Peter—saying that Abdul and Clark have both been questioned in the investigation, Abdul denying, quote, “some allegations,” Liguori going on to say Abdul will return to the series for its fourth season, her future beyond that hinging not on whether or not she had a relationship with Clark but on whether or not that relationship affected the show‘s outcome.  “The sanctity of the competition is first and foremost,” he said.

Maybe all this explains why Rupert Murdoch‘s son, Lachlan, abruptly resigned today as his father‘s chief deputy at Fox and News Corp. and headed home for Australia.  Or his conscience might suddenly have arrived in the mail.

Speaking of overdue consciences, there‘s Michael Jackson news.  His new album, not doing well.  What new album, you ask?  “The Essential Michael Jackson Collection,” two disks, 38 tracks, including such hits as “In the Closet” and “Who Is It?”  It debuted last week.  In this country, it sold 8,000 copies -- 8,000.  That‘s one sixth the sales of the soundtracks to the movie, “The Dukes of Hazard.”  What we have to do is get the puppets from puppet theater to cut a CD, just to see if we can sell 8,001 copies.

How about a CD featuring strange noises coming from Saturn?  We‘re receiving them.  Plus, what are you doing in the year 2036?  Your answer might have to be, I‘m planning on dodging asteroids.

That‘s ahead, but first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for the coveted title of “Worst Person in the World.”  The bronze winner, the umpire in the Massachusetts state Little League tournament game.  When a coach from the Methuen team shouted instructions in Spanish, the umpire stopped the game and ordered all players to speak English only.  Supervisors have apologized.

Note, please, the umpire is unnamed.  It‘s a bad sign when the name of the umpire in a ballgame is a secret.

Also nominated, the folks on the Web site Betonsports.  Today they made it possible for to you bet on whether or not the appointment of John Roberts in the Supreme Court will mean Roe v Wade will be overturned.

But the winner?  Trevon (ph) Smith of Fontana, California.  Somebody stole his car.  He wanted it back.  He didn‘t have to wait, so he told police that his 4-year-old niece was in the car.  She wasn‘t.  He‘s been arrested, and he‘s become today‘s “Worst Person in the World”!


OLBERMANN:  We‘re getting radio emissions from the planet Saturn.  We‘re getting bad news about any outdoor plans you may be making for a weekend in the year 2036.  And we‘re getting good news about the shuttle Discovery.  We think it‘s good news.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN: Space sounds, space threats, space explorers, starting with the latter and our correspondent Tom Costello at the Johnson Space Center in Houston—Tom.

TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.  Today, NASA assigns what they‘re calling a “tiger team” to get to the bottom of this falling debris problem, essentially, a lot of people working very hard to solve this problem and get the next shuttle flying as quickly as possible.  But with that timeline in question, today the space station mission managers formally requested that Discovery stay docked for an extra day to ensure that the station crew members have everything they need until the next shuttle visit.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Could you repeat that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Looks like we‘ve found the area near the (INAUDIBLE)

COSTELLO (voice-over):  Yet again today, the crew of Discovery was using remote cameras and lasers to scan the shuttle‘s protective tiles for signs of damage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘re looking for a little chip right in the middle of the tile.

COSTELLO:  That chip and two small pieces of protruding tile filler were the focus of attention today.  And while engineers will finish redoing all the imagery this weekend, NASA says, so far, they‘ve seen nothing that could endanger the crew on re-entry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We certainly think we‘ll come back in on late Saturday or Sunday with a clean bill of health for Discovery.

COSTELLO:  Also today, commander Eileen Collins reacted to news that falling debris on lift-off had put future shuttle flights on hold.

EILEEN COLLINS, SHUTTLE COMMANDER:  I did not expect any large pieces of foam to fall off the external tank.  We thought we had that problem licked.

COSTELLO:  But with the next visit to the space station possibly delayed, NASA today said it may extend Discovery‘s visit by one day to strip the shuttle of anything that might help the space station crew, from lightbulbs to water to duct tape.

WAYNE HALE, SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM:  The International Space Station formally requested that we spend an extra dock day with them to do some additional work, some transfers and so forth.

COSTELLO:  Tomorrow, the first of three space walks to test tile repair techniques for future shuttle missions.

COLLINS:  Good night from Discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Good night, Eileen.


COSTELLO:  NASA thinks that Discovery suffered about 25 dings on takeoff, on liftoff.  They say that that is far fewer than the normal 150 dings that a shuttle comes back with.  So they‘re feeling good about that.  In addition today, NASA administrator Michael Griffin says he is not ruling out the possibility that the next shuttle may fly this year—Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Tom Costello, ding counting at Johnson Space Center this evening.  Many thanks.

Quick, fellow galaxy hitchhikers, how many planets are there in our solar system?  Yesterday, the answer would have been 9.  Tonight, it might be 10.  Look, it‘s 2003-EL-61, the designation now given by the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.  It was independently discovered by two separate teams of astronomers, one in Spain, one at Cal Tech, and it has its own moon.  It‘s out there beyond Neptune somewhere.  All right, you go past Jupiter, you make a left at Uranus.  It‘s very, very big.

It‘s very, very far away, unlike, say, the asteroid that is hurtling towards Earth and may hit us in about 30 years.  Mark your calenders, April 13, 2029.  That‘s when the asteroid known 99942-Apophis will be about 22,000 miles away.  That‘s closer than the satellites that make your cell phone work.  The concern for scientists, and really for everybody, is that there are three so-called gravitational keyholes that this asteroid must pass on its way, which could deviate its orbit enough that it would then come back seven years later and actually hit the earth, not just miss it, and that would look something like this.

Tea Leoni will cover it for MSNBC.

So what could possibly make the news from space any weirder?  Talking planets, you say?  Yes, we got that.  The Cassini spacecraft, launched eight years ago to analyze Saturn, began detecting strange sound emissions as early as three years ago, radio waves similar to those produced by the aurora borealis and the aurora australis on this planet.  Those you may have seen.  These you can hear.

I recognize that sound.  That sound is Brent Bozell.

So other than the part about the asteroid hitting the earth, why does any of this matter?  Here to race through the category of space potpourri, Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.  Thanks again for joining us, sir.


OLBERMANN:  So to start with, I can clear my calender of everything after the year 2036?

PITTS:  Can I sell you some insurance for that day?  I‘ve got—you know, I got a great package for you.  Yes, that‘s going to be quite a day, if it actually ever happens.  You know, the possibility is kind of on the slim side to begin with, even though they say it‘s 1 in 15,000.  But it has to hit those gravitational keyholes, so that‘s really spreading it out even bigger.

OLBERMANN:  They are putting it this way, though, statistically.  It has a greater chance of hitting the earth and getting through those keyholes than I do of getting hit by a bus?  Is NASA, say, preparing to do anything about this in the next 30 years?

PITTS:  Well, the real thing that has to happen here, Keith, is we have to look at the orbit very carefully and determine if those numbers that we have so far actually are correct because what could happen is, with further examination of the orbital path, we could find out that it‘s not going to come close to Earth at all.  And that won‘t be the first time that‘s happened.  It‘s happened probably three times in recent history.  So we still need to do a little bit more research work with it.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, and there‘s always a story like this either that we talked about three months ago or that we‘re going to talk about three months from now.  But ultimately, is it—like they say in California, is it just a matter of time until the big one?

PITTS:  Keith, it‘s just a matter of time.  We are going to get hit at some time.  The question is, Is it going to be in 2036 or is it going to be in 2236?  So we‘re still looking for other objects like this that could do some damage to us.

OLBERMANN:  All right, let‘s—while we have the time, let‘s move on to Saturn.  Why is it making noise, and who is it talking to?

PITTS:  I thought that was the soundtrack from a fright party I had last month, actually.  The reason why it‘s making noise is because electromagnetic particles from the sun interact with Saturn‘s atmosphere and the magnetosphere particularly.  And what has happened is that these scientists have taken their graphic description of this, their analysis of this, and just changed the frequency so that they can turn it into an audio file and hear what it sounds like, rather than just looking at the curve on a sheet of paper.  So in a way, you can say Saturn is singing, but if you were to actually put your ear right there, that‘s not what you‘d hear.

OLBERMANN:  The other big news, 2003-EL-61, the big thing beyond Neptune—is it a planet?  And if it is a planet, can it apply somewhere to get a better name than that?


PITTS:  I hope that the International Astronomical Union will come up with a better name for it.  But let‘s do the quick update.  There‘s another one that goes along with this.  I think it‘s UB-313 that‘s bigger than Pluto is, along with this one.  So not only do we have a 10th planet, but there‘s also an 11th planet.  Now, the planet issue, if we were doing this discovery 150 years ago, we would have considered these planets and we‘d have 11 planets in our solar system.

OLBERMANN:  But we don‘t now.  Why not?

PITTS:  We don‘t now because we‘ve decided that the classic definition for our solar system includes just nine planets.  But I‘m thinking that, maybe, Keith, this will spur the International Astronomical Union to reconsider our definition of planet and maybe include these two and possibly the one that was discovered last year or two years ago, along with our other planets.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, somebody—somebody in astronomy just has a whole set of—a whole slew of those solar models with the nine planets.  They don‘t want to have to see them go out of date.

PITTS:  They want to—they want to sell those.

OLBERMANN:  Give me 30 seconds on the shuttle.  Is everything all right?  Is it going to make it back safely, as near as you can tell?

PITTS:  Yes, it is going to make it back safely because they‘ve done a very, very careful examination of the orbiter to make sure the tiles are all OK.  The issue is with the external tank.  They need to get that together.  But most importantly, we should just treat this as if it‘s a test flight.  We shouldn‘t fly again until we can get that straightened out.  Then we can all be on board with that, and it‘ll make everything safe for the next trip.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  I think the idea that stuff keeps falling off is a definite indicator they should just pause and take stock.

PITTS:  Yes, not a good one.  They should do that.

OLBERMANN:  Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, as always, sir, great.  Thanks for joining us tonight.

PITTS:  My pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose, no matter where you are in the solar system.  Good night, and good luck.



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