Olbermann Wonders if Terror Investigation Leaked to Distract from NSA Wiretapping

On Friday's Countdown show, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann questioned whether the leaking of an FBI investigation of terror suspects who tried to buy untraceable cell phones from Target and Wal-Mart stores was timed to bolster the administration's case for its controversial NSA wiretapping program. The Countdown host, who has a history of questioning whether the Bush administration politically times terror alerts to distract attention from events embarassing to the administration (see NewsBusters postings covering his Oct. 11 and Oct. 12 shows for details), made known his latest suspicions: "Reassure me it only looks too convenient to be believed." While interviewing Time magazine's Mike Allen, Olbermann proclaimed that "the administration sure gets a lot of these breaks. Their position is challenged, and then suddenly there is a hazy story about something that seems to at least tangentially justify that position."

Olbermann relayed to the audience that the recent leak by FBI sources, first reported by ABC News, regarding the arrests of terror suspects who had bought mass quantities of untraceable, disposable cell phones coincides with the NSA whistleblower who "suggests the illicit tapping of American phones is thousands of times larger and thousands of times less focused than the President claims." Olbermann reasoned that the story, if true, "makes the wiretapping look like a good idea and its leakers look like they've already helped terrorists outsmart the eavesdropping."

Then, voicing his suspicions about the story's authenticity and timing, he proclaimed, "Boy, you can't buy timing like that. I mean it. I'm asking seriously, you can't buy timing like that, right? Reassure me it only looks too convenient to be believed." Olbermann later noted that "several independent counterterrorism experts think any terror connection is only in the imagination of those officials."

Olbermann then brought aboard Time correspondent Mike Allen and posed the question to him that "the timing of that FBI cell phone investigation story, we'll never know for sure if that is or is not just an amazing coincidence that it falls right after the whole NSA whistleblower issue comes up, but, as we had pointed out here before, the administration sure gets a lot of these breaks. Their position is challenged, and then suddenly there is a hazy story about something that seems to at least tangentially justify that position."

Allen voiced agreement: "Yeah, Keith, who would think that a Target store in Hemet would be the salvation from a bad news cycle?" He then hearkened back to Olbermann's suspicions about the administration's timing of terror alerts as he declared that "it does maybe give flashbacks to the security, the terror threat alert changes. We haven't had one of those in a while, so the, you're right that sometimes these stories crop up, and it's not always clear why."

Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday January 13 Countdown show:

Keith Olbermann, about 8:04 PM EST: "Meantime, late in the same week that an NSA whistleblower suggests the illicit tapping of American phones is thousands of times larger and thousands of times less focused than the President claims, suddenly we have FBI sources linking stories about Middle Easterners trying to buy vast quantities of untraceable, disposable American cell phones from K-Marts and Target stores. Which, if true, makes the wiretapping look like a good idea and its leakers look like they've already helped terrorists outsmart the eavesdropping. Boy, you can't buy timing like that. I mean it. I'm asking seriously, you can't buy timing like that, right? Reassure me it only looks too convenient to be believed."

After relaying the news that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will be testifying about the NSA wiretapping program to the Senate, and former President Clinton's comments on his administration's use of wiretapping, Olbermann returned to the story of terror suspects buying untraceable cell phones.

Olbermann, about 8:06 PM EST: "While on a parallel track, maybe, there is that FBI leak about disposable cell phones. Federal officials telling ABC News that they have launched an investigation because of two shopping sprees in the past month. In one of them, six would-be cell phone shoppers at a Wal-Mart store in Midland, Texas, last month arrested after store employees became suspicious. The men were said to be of Middle East origin. The police report in the arrest identifying the six individuals as linked to a terror cell, but several independent counterterrorism experts think any terror connection is only in the imagination of those officials."

Olbermann then brought aboard Time's Mike Allen to talk about the day's political news.

Olbermann, about 8:10 PM EST: "Last point, the timing of that FBI cell phone investigation story, we'll never know for sure if that is or is not just an amazing coincidence that it falls right after the whole NSA whistleblower issue comes up, but, as we had pointed out here before, the administration sure gets a lot of these breaks. Their position is challenged, and then suddenly there is a hazy story about something that seems to at least tangentially justify that position."

Mike Allen, Time Magazine: "Yeah, Keith, who would think that a Target store in Hemet would be the salvation from a bad news cycle? One of those shopping sprees was for 150 phones. I guess that is a lot of phones in Hemet or anywhere else, but it does maybe give flashbacks to the security, the terror threat alert changes. We haven't had one of those in a while, so the, you're right that sometimes these stories crop up, and it's not always clear why."