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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 05/17/13

Guests: Gregory Johnsen

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Happy Friday. Thanks for being with us tonight, on a day that feel like kind of a news day like only happens in the movies. The first headlines to cross this morning were about a jewel heist in France, specifically a specifically at the Cannes Film Festival. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewels, all stolen from a hotel safe. There were initial reports that the jewels might have been things that movie stars were planning to wear at the film festival, but now, it seems like that is maybe less likely. A professional gang of jewel thieves who are actually known as the Pink Panthers have hit this area in France in recent years. Police say they do not think this particular heist looks like the work of the Pink Panthers but they are not ruling them out yet. And no, that is not my dog. Then, this evening, also at Cannes, shots of some kind, shots, were fired during live broadcast at the festival, which sent the audience and movie stars running for cover. Police arrested a man in position of a fake grenade and starting pistol. So a thing that looks like a gun and can make a sound like gunshot, but it does not fire real bullets. The police initial about the guy they arrested is that he seems to be, quote, "a crazy guy." Don`t get mad at me for saying crazy. That`s what the police said in France. Also today, reports of a video that appears to show the mayor of the fourth largest city in North America smoking crack. This is a photo supplied by the people who are selling the video. was the first source to break the news. Their editor saying he traveled to Toronto after he was approached to buy the crack-smoking mayor videotape. The Gawker editor says he did see the tape. He says that he is sure that it is the mayor in the tape, but he did not buy the tape. The price was too high but nevertheless he wants you to know it exist. So, the news is kind of like that today, right? Even before you get to today`s details in the Silvio Berlusconi trial in Italy where some of the prostitutes at his parties were allegedly paid to dress up like President Obama, for whatever reason. Yes, it is just that kind of day in the news. But in Washington today, it is still scandal o` clock all day long. And today, we saw the guy who was just forced at the IRS grilled in a congressional hearing about the tax agency using conservative-sounding political keywords to single out applicants for special scrutiny. The inspector general at the Treasury who investigated the scandal in the first place said today that he did tell two higher ups at Treasury last June that he was going to be doing this investigation into how the conservative groups were treated. He told the deputy treasury secretary and he told the general council at treasury that he was starting this inquiry into whether conservatives were unfairly singled out. He says he told them he was starting the inquiry but obviously not what the inquiry had found since he hadn`t found anything yet because he was just getting started. Republicans seized on this news today, though, because of the timing. Saying it is important that there were administration officials outside just the IRS itself who knew before the election that there was at least a potential problem with the IRS targeting conservative groups. Shouldn`t that have been disclosed publicly, couldn`t that become a salient in the election had the administration disclosed that that investigation was under way before everybody voted. So, that`s what happened today in today`s hearing on the IRS scandal. Don`t worry. In case you missed today`s hearing on the IRS scandal, there will be many more. There will be endless hearings on this. At least it seems. The next ones are already scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. This is the new story that the Republicans and even the Democrats this time are going to make their obsessive 24-hour a day investigative reason for living from here on out. And they have time to do that in part because the other scandal that the Republicans have been obsessing on in trying to ring for all its worth for months now, has kind of fallen apart in the last few days. More specifically, it`s actually just taken a really hard turn in the past few days. It was this time last week when the Benghazi scandal finally crossed over into a mainstream concern, right? Instead of just fuelling all caps exclamation point misspelled fundraising chain mail letters on the right. It was this time last week when ABC News finally blew this story wide open. When I say they blew this story, I mean seriously, they totally blew it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Now to the White House, challenged today during leadership crisis. A crisis about what the president did on Benghazi and we`re talking about eight months ago when four Americans died. ABC`s chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl broke the story that created a storm today. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: You know, he did create a storm. The ABC report on Friday caused all three network newscast to report on the scandal of Benghazi. Not just for FOX News any more and talk radio. It`s ABC news and CBS News and NBC News, it`s all of cable news. That was Friday. Then, Sunday morning, oh, boy, it was all for Sunday morning talk shows, ABC and NBC and CBS and "FOX News Sunday" all leading with Benghazi. Wow, thanks, Jonathan Karl. Thanks, ABC. Now this is the biggest story in the country because of the damning e- mails that ABC News said it had obtained. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: Saying in an e-mail obtained by ABC -- (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Obtained, obtained by ABC. This is ending up being the key point there. An e-mail obtained by ABC. ABC said overtly that they had obtained these damning White House e-mails. And then in their reporting, which again blew this whole story into a national mainstream news story for the first time ever, which has taken a week to even start to dissipate. ABC printed what they said were direct quotations from these e-mails that they said they had obtained. We now know that ABC had not obtained e-mails because the emails they were supposedly directly quoting from were actually obtained by other reporters and than published publicly as part after big document dump by the White House. ABC bizarrely decided to update their story but not correct it. They decided not to apologize for it or retract this false thing they published. What turns out to be the most interesting question in all of this, besides when the heck is ABC going to correct this, the most interesting question in all of this turns out to be, well, if ABC was not quoting real White House e-mails, they said they were quoting real White House e-mails. They were not. What were they quoting? And now, it turns out we can piece that together from all of the other news agencies trying to reverse-engineer this disaster, this false story that went totally wrong this week. What is now apparent is that the same cooked up false account of something that was supposedly said and done by White House officials in the aftermath of Benghazi, that false account was written by with what various reporters describe as congressional and Republican sources. Hey, I think I found the actual scandal. This is how NBC put it. Congressional sources discussed with NBC News a report compiled by House Republicans that examined a series of e-mails concerning when and how talking points were crafted about the Benghazi attacks. That itself congressional sources discussed with news agencies, a report compiled by House Republican. That kind of sourcing itself is not a scandal. This becomes a scandal when we learn subsequently that that report that was given to reporters was a false report. It made up something that the White House supposedly did, that the White House did not do. And they shot that false report to ABC News and ABC News bought it hook, line and sinker. They published it as an exclusive. And all the Beltway media, and all the national media and everybody in politics jumped, because now this finally seemed like a scandal. Oh, that`s what the right has been so upset about. But the scandal part of it was this idea that the White House got in right after the Benghazi attacks happened and started big-footing the whole process to make sure that State Department would look good. That`s the scandal. That`s what was supposedly this big bombshell that ABC broke on Friday, and that scandal that White House weighed in, in the talking points, to make the State Department look good, that did not happen. That only happened in the cooked up dossier that Republicans in Congress wrote themselves, that they said was the work of the White House, and then they shocked it to the press. And, yes, part of the scandal here is a press scandal. You know what? When you get used like this and you publish false information, false quotes, you have to correct it. But the bigger scandal here is not a process matter. It`s not a press matter. It is this very stark fact that somebody in Congress right now, or somebody working for somebody in Congress right now, a staffer, concocted a big lie to try to make the White House look very desperately bad on this Benghazi scandal that they otherwise haven`t been able to get traction with. Who told the lie? A note to my journalist pals who got involved in this scandal: if your source lied to you, they are not actually a source. They are a con artist and you are their victim. It means you don`t have to protect them any more. They are not a source. When you get lied to, when you are a tool of somebody else`s deception, when you get lied to, the person lying to you is no longer a source. They are news. Their lie to you is itself news. And can you report that news. Republican congressional offices shopped a false dossier as if it was White House`s mails. That is a story. The office and staffers and members of Congress maybe who did that, that is news. And if you know who it is, you can say so. The other thing I would say to my friend in the media on this is that it is OK to say that you got something wrong. I mean, it sucks it say you`re wrong. But if you are wrong, it is better to say you`re wrong than to not say you`re wrong and just hope it all goes away. Look, I can prove it. It sucks but you can say sorry. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) MADDOW: OK, department of corrections, I made an error on last night`s show. It is embarrassing. I regret the error. We have a correction to make. I had no idea I made this error because I am now an old person. Correction, I screwed up and I`m sorry. (END VIDEO CLIPS) MADDOW: It is awful and horrible, but you can just do it. The show has been on the air almost five years now, knock on wood, right? And in that time, we`ve gotten some stuff wrong. One of those ones that we just played a clip from was me screwing up barrels versus gallons when we were doing a story about oil. That is freaking embarrassing. I mean, a barrel is really, really big, right? A gallon you can pick up in one hand. Did I screw up? Yes. I screwed that up, right? But you know what? You guys screwed up on this Republican-Benghazi scam ABC thing, you screwed something way bigger than that. You have to fix it. You put it in quotes. It was not a quote. You have to fix it. You have to correct it. So that`s the status. That is the state basically of Washington scandal today. But at times like this in our politics, sometimes it feels like the individual circumstances of each individual scandal unfolding through each individual hearing they feel like the individual circumstances matter less than the overall momentum that comes with Washington, you can feel it, clicking over into scandal mode, right? Hold on, we`re going into a tunnel. Things are about to look very different. Once you are in scandal mode, it`s like if you have a four wheel drive vehicle, remember how it used to be? And sometimes it`s still is, in some vehicles, you have to click over into locked hub four wheel drive low. Locked hub four wheel drive low is great for getting yourselves out of really sticky situations, churning through really deep mud of a very slow speed. If you do actually want to proceed on pavement towards transporting yourself somewhere, four wheel low is not actually going to get you there. That`s kind of where we are right now. We`re in scandal mode. Does the Obama administration have a way to get out of scandal mode? Or is this essentially indefinite if not permanent now? Does the Obama administration need to get Washington out of scandal mode or is there some way in which they might see this as not necessarily all bad for them. And has Barack Obama the man, or Barack Obama the politician, even before he was president, ever been through a period like this in his life? In his personal or political history, has he ever been through this type of trial? Does his past tell us anything about what might happen next? Joining us now is David Axelrod. He is former senior adviser to President Obama. He`s now director of the Institute of Politics at University of Chicago, and he`s MSNBC senior political analyst. Mr. Axelrod, thank you for being here. DAVID AXELROD, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to be here. I`m nostalgic listening to these recounting of the week. I`m missing Washington so much. MADDOW: Yes, I bet. Well, you have known President Obama for a long time. You`ve been with him through his political career. Has he ever been through a very difficult sort of multifaceted period like this? Personally or politically, have you seen him through periods like this before? AXELROD: Oh, yes. In fact, I have experienced with him. First of all, understand we went through a whole campaign in 2007- 2008., principally 2007 in which the whole Washington establishment was writing us off as incompetence. Then during the presidency, we have had these episodes. When I watched the news this week, I was getting flashbacks to that week in the spring of 2010 when the oil leak erupted in the Gulf Coast. And you remember it, Rachel, it was -- the president wasn`t passionate enough, didn`t move quickly enough, his staff are all a bunch of idiots, are all a bunch of idiots. He ought to get rid of this them. This is Obama`s Katrina. It`s the defining event of his presidency. Will he ever recover from this? I must say, I don`t think there was one mention of the oil leak during the whole 2012 campaign. But Washington tends to get itself into a tizzy and every event is treated as if it`s the defining event, at least for the number of hours and days it goes on for, then the town moves on to its next obsession. And I suspect that that is what`s going to happen here. This will play out. We will come out of it. And I don`t think any of these things will have a lasting defining impact. I think the danger of it is that it eats up time and when you`re in your second term, every day is precious and trying to get some things done. And when the town is spinning on these faux scandals, it takes up time. MADDOW: Is there anything strategically that you think the administration is likely to do, or ought to be doing to stop burning up so much time? To try to make sure these periods are sure as possible. AXELROD: You know, I actually think that they did some smart things this week. I think, you know, getting those e-mails out quickly this week, reintroducing the media shield act, acting quickly in terms of dismissing the director of the Internal Revenue Service and initiating, you know, a process of review, I think those things are all important, and valuable. In fact, you know, the thing that is also worth reviewing here is there are serious issues behind each of these questions. It is just not what anybody is talking about. There is no doubt that Benghazi was a great tragedy and a tragic series of missteps and errors that led up to it in terms of the safety of those people. Nobody ever dismissed that. In fact the State Department, the review board issued a scathing report on this. So, the question is, what can we do? Are we going to devout more resources to protecting the embassy? The IRS --are we going to examine not just happened and why but how do you deal with the 501(c)(4)s? These entities that are so hard as to whether they are political or not? I happen to believe a lot of them are political. And maybe they don`t warrant the treatment they get from the Internal Review Service, although that should be examined across the board. I`ve been pleased to see on "The A.P." story that we now have a lot of born again defenders of the freedom of the press. We will see if that carries through to actually voting for a media shield law. If that`s what comes from this, that will have been positive. But none of that is being discussed now. It`s -- you know, the scandal mania is a stride in Washington and that just has to burn itself out. MADDOW: In terms of how quickly it will burn itself out and whether or not new revolutions are going to continue to keep this going on. Today, it seems like what emerged from the hearing about the IRS scandal was this idea the inspector general had notified higher-ups at Treasury, so outside the IRS, at the Treasury agency, that they are looking into this question about whether conservative groups were mistreatment in the application process by the IRS. They had known and they knew before election season. Does that open up you guys from the campaign and the administration to the charge that you should have let that be publicly known that that investigation was under way, it might have a really big effect on the election, because it would have upset people, as we see now? AXELROD: Well, first of all, speaking for someone who was at the campaign, I didn`t know anything about that when it was going on. And, you know, one of the things about this, Rachel, is when you look at how utterly asinine it was that they were doing what they were doing -- I mean it made sense from a technical standpoint that, you know, a lot of these organizations sprung up in the middle of the election, and so it was fair to surmise that they weren`t really social welfare organizations. But just from a political standpoint, it was ludicrous to do what they do. And there is prima facie evidence that nobody political was exercising any judgment in there. But in terms of your question, I assume that the people who were told there were result of the review and people waiting to react on the review. I don`t know if it would have had a great impact on the election to know that this was going on. These questions were swirling around. Maybe it would have. But I suspect it would just energize people who were already energized to oppose the president. The truth is, you know, as I move around the country, I don`t know that all of this is kitchen table talk for anybody out here in America, maybe in Washington. Obviously people are concerned about manipulation of the IRS for political purposes, if that`s what happened. But you have an inspector general who testified today that that`s not what happened. That`s not what he believed happened. And so you know, I do think that, yes, there will churn. I think there`s a danger for the Republicans that if they overplay it, a lot of folks out here for whom this isn`t kitchen table talk will say, when will they get to stuff that actually matters to us. MADDOW: Right. AXELROD: When will they deal with something that has consequence in our lives? MADDOW: Weren`t we going to get to immigration this time? Weren`t we going to get to gun background checks? Weren`t we going to get to and, and, and, and -- AXELROD: And not to mention the economic issues like the budget. MADDOW: Absolutely. David Axelrod, former senior advisor to President Obama, now MSNBC senior political analyst -- thank you for being with us on a Friday, David. We really appreciate it. AXELROD: Always nice to be with you, Rachel. Thank you. MADDOW: All right. Next, I will talk about a man wearing a strange wig in a completely legitimate news context. Not only because it`s Friday, but it is Friday of this week and this is when wigs in the news end up being normal. Yes, that`s next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: This is James Traficant. He was a Democratic politician. Once a member of Congress from Ohio. He was thrown out of Congress after he was convicted of taking bribes, false tax returns, racketeering, all sorts of stuff. James Traficant is kind of an amazing story for a lot of reasons. Let`s not beat around the bush here. Let us dispense of (INAUDIBLE). Obviously, the thing that James Traficant is most remembered for is, oh, my God, look at his hair, right? I mean, it`s amazing hair. And nobody else in history has ever had hair like that, except apparently this guy. Tada! An American named Ryan Fogle, who worked at the American embassy in Moscow, who was arrested in Moscow earlier this week, apparently while wearing the world`s most astonishing and ridiculous wig. That picture of him in a wig is a still picture from the video of Ryan Fogle`s arrest that was released to the Russian media. They released video both of his arrest and of an elaborate perp walk that the FSB made him do. Russians filmed the arrest, they filmed him handcuffed, still sporting the wig and the hat. They filmed him being escorted into a backseat of a black car, then they filmed him being taken into a building no longer wearing his leg but carrying it in hand, and then we eventually see him waiting to be questioned by the FSB. The FSB is what the KGB used to be like, right? And then at one point in the video, on a table, they lay out on the table and show us all the spy gear they allegedly caught him with. Now, here is the thing. This is the long oddly transfixing video that we got from the Russian earlier last week when they arrested Ryan Fogle. Now, I want you to watch this. This is n excerpt of a Soviet era documentary from 1986 showing a CIA operate of named Michael Sellers (ph) who was arrested and interrogated at KGB headquarters back in `86. And look at the video side by side. We see both men taken in for questioning. We see them sitting awkwardly at this table, almost from the same angle. In both videos, we can`t see the identity of the men can them and asking them questions. And then, in both cases, we see this amazing table of spy gear. Multiple pairs of eye glasses, recording devices, right down to each of them having a light colored wig that fits into a hat. This arrest this week in Moscow, this oddly choreographed performed for the cameras arrest for the supposedly American spy in Moscow this week is basically an exact replay of the exact thing that Russians did to great propaganda effect in 1986. I mean, right down to the retro Cold War era spy gear that they say they caught him with and showed with such pride in the perp walk video. I mean, this could mean that the CIA still goes to the same wig store and buys the same wigs for their spies decade after decade. Or it could conceivably mean that it is actually the same wig from 1986 that has been at a filing cabinet at the KGB -- I`m sorry, FSB, ever since. They dug out the old wig to accomplish the spy versus spy propaganda coup just like it`s the Cold War all over again. There are a lot of fishy details about the Russian spy revelations this week. Obviously, first, there`s the Austin Powers spy kit they allegedly found on the spy, right? Bad wigs, glasses, a compass, really? A street atlas, a pocket knife, a lighter, and a spy recruitment letter that starts with, dear friend, and then offers between $100,000 up to a million dollars for the supposed target`s cooperation in spying. Come on. If this supposed American spy was arrested while he was supposedly going to meet with his target in person, why would he bother writing down his spy offer on a piece of paper and have it in his pocket so he would have no denying it if he got caught for any reason? The weirdness for the spying for money offer is not diminished by the fact that Russians have just released audio as well. An audiotape they say is Ryan Fogle making the same weird up front, very expensive cash offer for spying over the phone. (VIDEO CLIP PLAYS) MADDOW: Is that real? The truth is, we don`t really know what is going on. Maybe Ryan Fogle is a real spy and that`s his real wig that he picked for his spy job. But consider the timing here. They arrested this guy Monday night. On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, who the Russian government hates, he was scheduled to do a Twitter Q&A with the public, ask the ambassador anything. He was scheduled to do that on Twitter at 2:30 local time Tuesday. And at 2:30 local time on Tuesday, that is exactly when the Russian government released the news that they had arrested this spy, this guy in the terrible wig. Hey, here`s the pictures. Here is the video. "Washington Post" pointed out that timing this week. Then the day after they announced the arrest, that`s when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had his big high profile meeting with his equivalent in the Russian government with the foreign minister. It`s embarrassing thing to happen right before the meeting, right? Then, today, an FSB spokesman ups the ante by reportedly revealing the identity, revealing name of American CIA station chief in Moscow. Wow! We do not know if Ryan Fogle is a spy. We do not know if that was his real spy gear, his real spy wig, or if it was all a plan to make the U.S. look stupid. We do not know. Until we know, there is no reason to speculate. But no matter how this saga resolves, I think we can all agree that James Traficant should sue to get his hair back. Or at least he should get royalties when they inevitably make the bad movie out of this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: One of the biggest most public vows that President Obama made to the public immediately upon taking office in 2009, may actually right now, be considerably closer to becoming a reality, finally. They said it couldn`t be done but it is maybe about to be done. And that surprising story is next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Hey, it turns out there may be a solution at hand for one of the things that in the Obama administration everybody said was going to be impossible to fix. I realize it is totally typical to break this kind of news late on a Friday night. But it can`t be avoided. And it is potentially really important. It`s is about the very first thing that President Obama did when he became president in 2009. His first official act as president was to sign a directive ordering that off-shore prison we`ve been maintaining in communist Cuba should be shut down. He said it should be shut down within a year. It was the second part to that order though. The president also ordered at the same time that there be a review of every case of every prisoner at that prison to determine what should happen to him. Should they be prosecuted? Should they be set free? Should they be sent home but sent home to prison? Should they be held on to without trial for a while longer to pretend they weren`t there and didn`t explain to anybody why the prison needed to be in Cuba? Those reviews for every prisoner, those were all ordered by the president at the same time as part of that very first thing that he did as a new president. And it is interesting, since he has been president, not a single new person has been sent to that prison that we keep in Cuba. There have been no additional prisoners added. But obviously we have not closed it yet either. There were 242 people in prison there when President Obama took off. There are now 166 men there. Only 9 of the 166 have been charged or convicted of any crime the rest are in this limbo. This limbo that the administration says it wants it end. Of all the guys left there, most of them are from one country. When we first opened up this prison in Cuba and started sending guys there, a ton of them were from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia. But almost all of those folks are gone now. Not all of them, but almost all of them are. The ones who are left are numerically, mostly, from this place. There`s 166 guys at Guantanamo, and 88 of them are from the nation of Yemen. Of those 88 guys, 59 of them have been cleared by that review process to go home. Just like the Saudis did and just like the Afghans did and most of all the other people from the other countries heavily represented at this prison, these guys from Yemen, most of them, were cleared. They were set to start going home in December 2009. Until a guy with ties to al Qaeda in Yemen tried to bomb an American plane with a bomb stuffed in his underpants at Christmas time 2009. That put a hold on plans to send prisoners home to Yemen. That eventually led to congressional de facto bans on the U.S. government sending anyone to Yemen from Guantanamo. So, there has been this intractable problem of something President Obama wanted to get done, he wanted to close this prison. But he has been stuck with this prison that Congress won`t let him close. He is stuck with this roster of mostly Yemen prisoners who are mostly cleared to be released, but he is blocked from releasing them. And now, a majority of the prisoners at Guantanamo are refusing food and hunger striking buzz they think there is no end to any of it. But we now know, at least we can maybe know enough to imagine, how this might end. At least how some of it might end. When Attorney General Eric Holder walked into the hearing where he testified for four solid hours this week on scandal-rama, as the attorney general was walking into the hearing room, a protester yelled at him. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PROTESTER: Mr. Attorney General, when are you going to appoint a special envoy to Guantanamo? Twenty-nine people are now being force-fed. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Mr. Attorney General, when are you going to appoint a special envoy to Guantanamo? The attorney general did not answer. They never do. The protester was eventually thrown out. But then during the hearing, the attorney general did say this -- (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: There are steps that the administration can do, and that we will do, in an attempt to close that facility. There`s substantial number of people who can for instance be moved back to Yemen. The president put a hold on that given the situation going on in Yemen. That is something we have to review. I think the president indicated we will be taking new action in that regard. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: The attorney general there saying, taking renewed action in that regard. He`s not talking about specifically renewed action about sending people to Yemen but he did raise sending people to Yemen as something they are looking at doing maybe soon. "The L.A. Times" has since pulled that thread from that commentary and is positing the fact that there is a new government in Yemen now. Might be what is making this previously undoable thing suddenly maybe doable. Quote, "Of the 86 prisoners approved by presidential task force four years ago for transfer of Guantanamo, 59 are Yemeni and this is the important part, their new government wants them back. Citing the emergence of a more collaborative leadership under Yemen`s new president, the country`s officials have been lobbying Washington to return their countrymen." So we don`t necessarily want them. They desperately want them. They have been cleared for release. Anybody else sensing that something might be conceivably about to happen here? Joining us now is Gregory Johnsen. He`s the author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and America`s War in Arabia." He`s a Near East study scholar at Princeton University. Gregory Johnsen, thanks very much for being here. GREGORY JOHNSEN, AUTHOR, "THE LAST REFUGE": Thanks so much for having me. MADDOW: Why would the new government in Yemen want these guys back? JOHNSEN: Well, the old government wanted them back. Ali Abdullah Saleh wanted them back. But Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, the dictator of Yemen, in power for more than three decades, he knew how important closing Guantanamo Bay was to President Obama. And he played politics with it. He essentially held the prisoners ransom a second time trying to get as much from the Obama administration as he possibly could. The new government, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen, has very little domestic base of support. So what he needs is a lot of international support particularly from the United States, to offset his lack of domestic support. So what he`s doing is essentially being a very flexible partner willing to take these off President Obama`s hands. MADDOW: Is he doing a good job at this diplomacy? Is he asking for the right things and making his offers the right way? JOHNSEN: Well, that`s a very interesting point because just last week, Yemen`s minister for human rights, Hoorya Mashhoor, showed up in Washington thinking she was going to lobby for the release of these 59 individuals. Her trip was scheduled to be 10 days long. She left after three days. She didn`t get the meeting she thought she was going to get. She was very upset with the reaction from the American. She was very upset with how her own embassy staffed her and she left Washington in a huff. MADDOW: Wow. Does that mean there is a bigger hurdle to this than we thought based on the calculations on paper? JOHNSEN: Well, it`s Guantanamo Bay. There is always a bigger hurdle. This is something President Obama has been talking about since day two, and from the first week, this is when AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the same week that President Obama signed the legislation saying he was going to close Guantanamo, this new group shows up with two former Guantanamo Bay detainees. He tried again at the end of the year, there`s the underwear bomber. Every time the president makes a move on this, something from Yemen comes up, trips him up. MADDOW: In terms of the objections to sending -- whether or not it is safe to send former Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared for release in terms of their raw assessment of dangerousness, however they do that, in terms of whether or not it is safe to send them to a place like Yemen, can this government or could the previous government make any meaningful assurances about that. Is any of that strike you as substantive, or is it all just politics? JOHNSEN: Well, a lot of it is politics. And mostly, this has to do with trust, right? The Bush administration sent people back it Saudi Arabia because it trusted the Saudi government. Send people back to Afghanistan because it trusted in sort of a way, what the Afghan government was. There hasn`t been that same amount of trust in Yemen. And the real irony is that the group in Yemen, al Qaeda, the group responsible for the underwear bombs, these cartridge bombs, that group has former Guantanamo Bay detainees in it. But they are not Yemenis, they are Saudis. MADDOW: And why did they end up going to Yemen in order to be operational? JOHNSEN: Right. MADDOW: Because they had room to maneuver. JOHNSEN: Absolutely correct. MADDOW: Is there anything in terms of what you see as in terms of operational room to move, a group like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has there? Is there any chance that there`s got to be meaningful pressure from them from the domestic government? Will it all be imposed from U.S., JSOC and CIA military efforts? JOHNSEN: That`s a very good question. I mean, right now, the group is under pressure but most of it comes from drones, most of it comes from airstrikes. But the Yemeni government right now, we have to remember that Arab spring that overthrew President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Tunisia, Ben Ali went into exile, in Egypt, Mubarak goes to prison, and in Libya, Gadhafi is killed, in Yemen, it`s a different situation. Ali Abdullah Saleh Sulla didn`t lose, he just stepped down from being the president. He is still a political figure. And so, there is all of these tensions, there`s this behind the scenes maneuvering between these different factions and the Yemeni government doesn`t have complete control over large portions of the country there right now. MADDOW: Gregory, I know that you are a Yemen expert. You are not necessarily a Guantanamo expert. But if you -- if something was able to be worked out in these 59 guys were shipped from Cuba to home to Yemen, like the Yemeni government is arguing for, do you think that would essentially be the key to closing Guantanamo? JOHNSEN: It would be I think a large step towards closing Guantanamo. But I think there is a deeper issue here, a bigger issue, and that is keeping people indefinitely detained outside the legal framework. And so, President Obama is very clear that he wants to close Guantanamo Bay. But at the same time, his administration appears to want to continue to indefinitely detain many members outside of any sort of a legal framework. And so, you can sort of get away with the -- with sort of the rhetorical value of closing Guantanamo Bay, while keeping the policies that underlie it in place. I think that`s the real initiative. MADDOW: And they say they only want it for a very small number of people. But if you have extra judicial detention, you`ve got it. It`s kind of like being a -- (CROSSTALK) JOHNSEN: Right. It`s either/or, yes, absolutely. MADDOW: Exactly. Gregory Johnsen, it`s great to have you here. Thank you so much. JOHNSEN: Thank you. MADDOW: Been following you from a far for a long time. It`s nice to have you here. All right. Gregory Johnsen`s book is called "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and America`s War in Arabia." If you would like to check it out, it is linked at All right. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: So there have been a lot of notable heists recently. Heists is a fun word to say. For the record, caper also is fun, but sounds like food. So that`s why we stick with heist. We`d just barely gotten over the news of the multimillion dollar diamond heist that took place on the airport tarmac in Belgium. And then there was the news of the multimillion dollar ATM cash heist in Manhattan and then more than two dozen other cities. Then, today, news of the 300,000 euros of jewelry heisted from a motel room near the Cannes film festival. That was before the weird thing with the guy shooting blanks with the fake grenade, yes. Even before today`s news, it has been a particularly heisty news cycle. If that heisty news cycle has spurred your appetite for legitimate mysteries in news, we have got one for you. That`s our closing story tonight. It is really good. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Even a person with very, very good eyesight needs a magnifying glass to look at this, the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED. The OED is for people who love the English language so much, you`re willing to devote to it both serious shelf space and potentially some serious eye strain. These two volumes here, this is the compact edition, this is the little one, the one that condenses 20 giant volumes of regular size print into two volumes of impossible to read print. Now, one of the reasons that the OED is really important is that it is a historical dictionary that tells you not only the meaning of the word. It also traces the evolution of that meaning. And so, when you look through your magnifying glass at whatever it is that you`re looking up, you can see it cites for each definition the first few works of literature in which that word appears. It includes sentences, poetic lines in which the word appears, so you can see for yourself where it came from. Por ejemplo, let`s take the word fringy. According to Oxford English Dictionary, one of the meanings of the adjective fringy is, quote, "furnished or adorned with fringe or fringes. Covered with fringes." And the OED cites a work called Crochet Castle by T.L. Peacock, as the first example in literature of using the word fringy in that way. So, it was 1831. All that surrounded their eyes, fringy portals was radiant as the forehead of the morning sky. Thank you, Mr. Peacock. So, it is reasonable to be a dork about the OED. Whatever book you buy comes with a magnifying glass. It is super fascinating and super useful. And having those -- you know, here is how it was first used lines, it is an invaluable resource if you`re really interested in the word. Now, here is the mystery in today`s news. OED editors, Oxford English Dictionary editors, have been compiling and refining dictionary citations since the late 1800s, and they use thousands of sources. But one of the sources used over and over and over again for dozens of words in the OED, maybe it doesn`t exist. Maybe it does but they can`t find it anywhere and has the OED editors stumped. So, if we`re going to go back to the word fringy, the second documented use of that word to mean covered with fringes, it`s from this -- an 1852 book called "Meanderings of Memory". The usage was, fluttering as the mantle`s fringy rim. All in all, 51 citations in the OED come from this book, this "Meanderings of Memory". This book is cited all over the Oxford English Dictionary to define the earliest usage of words like chapelled, cock-a-bondy, which is a type of fly for fly fishing, couchward, epistle, extemporize, flambeau, gigantomachy, revirginize, yes, seriously, revirginize, scavage, vermined., warmthless, whinge. Whinge is one of my favorites British English words ever. Whinge. But there`s a slight crisis with that word, whinge, and with all those other words, as to where it came from. All of those words are sourced to "Meanderings of Memory". They all reportedly appeared in "Meanderings of Memory," which presumably was owned by at least one of the earlier editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is why it is all through this book. But, recently, when modern staff was working on the entry for revirginize, to render virginal again, to purify or renew, the staffer went looking for that original source that was referenced in the definition, recorded in the entry as "Meanderings of Memory" by an author known only as Nightlark. When the staffer went looking, the book itself turns out is nowhere to be found. So, the chief bibliographer for the Oxford English Dictionary took up the search and again, nothing. Nobody can find the book and there`s not much in terms of signs of its real existence. The only sign of its existence that we yet know of is from a book seller catalog from 1854. That entry says that "Meanderings of Memory" written and published by a well-known connoisseur. But that`s all we`ve got. Fifty-one word are homeless in history. Who is Nightlark, what kind of book is "Meanderings of Memory" and how come nobody can find it? According to the Oxford English Dictionary`s chief bibliographer, one of the operating theories is that the book, it`s embarrassing, the book is maybe porn. It apparently if it was 1852 era porn, it wouldn`t have been cataloged in the normal way and would be hard to find. But they really have no idea. And so, now, OED is turning to the public for help. They`re putting out a call to biblio files every to please check your shelves, check the Google, check the remainder table at the library sale for this really important and possibly porny, rare book. Have you ever seen a copy of this book? Can you identify the well known connoisseur mentioned by the book seller? You know, it isn`t often dictionary folks come asking us regular people for help. But when they do, I feel we should help when we can. Obviously, they really need the help. So, please, if you know anything about this, if you have anything to offer, let us know, we will pass it on. That`s your weekend assignment. That does it for us tonight. We`re going to see you again Monday. Very close up, now that you`ve been very good and you`ve watched us a whole hour, now you have to go to prison. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END