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News Brief: Tanker Attacks, Foreign Election Influence, Sudan Opposition


Is there new evidence that Iran was behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman?


There may be. Last night, the Pentagon released this grainy black-and-white video. The Pentagon says it shows an Iranian patrol boat recovering an unexploded mine from one of the tankers. Iran, on the other hand, says it is not behind these attacks. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pretty direct in placing blame.


MIKE POMPEO: These unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.

MARTIN: NPR's international correspondent Peter Kenyon is covering the story and joins us now. So, Peter, there's a lot to put together here. What do we know at this point about what happened to those tankers?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Pompeo's initial accusation was not backed up by any evidence. But later on, as you noted, this video and photographs were released by U.S. Central Command, intended to shore up the case that Tehran was responsible for these attacks on two tankers in the Persian Gulf. Now, all 44 crew members had been evacuated safely. Nobody was lost. But the incident certainly further escalates tensions between Tehran and Washington. Those tensions began to rise most recently a few weeks ago with U.S. charges that Iran was plotting an attack on U.S. targets in the region.

MARTIN: What's the - what would be Iran's motive for doing this? I mean, these are Japanese tankers, right?

KENYON: Well, that certainly is what Tehran's saying. They had no motive to do this. They were hosting the Japanese prime minister that very day. So that is part of their argument.

MARTIN: Can you just walk us through exactly what did occur? There is not video showing some Iranian people, Iranian proxies putting any missiles or any explosives on these tankers, right? They're removing something.

KENYON: That's exactly right. The video shows - appears to show Revolutionary Guard Corps members removing a limpet mine, a mine that sticks to the hull of a vessel, taking it away, an unexploded mine - the theory being that this is an attempt to remove evidence of Iranian culpability. Iran, of course, denies all of that. And the Trump administration seems quite determined to make this case, just as they were a month ago when four vessels were attacked near the United Arab Emirates.

Basically, Washington is getting support from some of its traditional allies. Now the British foreign secretary, for instance, says there's no reason not to believe the U.S. assessment.

MARTIN: So what's going to be the upshot of this? I mean, like you said, this comes at this time when the Japanese are trying to serve as some kind of broker in negotiations. Does this upend all of that?

KENYON: Well, I think it has. Yeah, Prime Minister Abe was not successful in doing anything, really, to ease the tensions in the reason - region, which is one of the stated reasons he went there.

The Iranian mission to the U.N. has released a rather, you know, defiant statement. It calls the American accusations part of an Islamophobic campaign. This is pretty familiar for Iran - take a specific accusation and dismiss it as an attack on Islam in general. The Iranians say neither fabrications nor disinformation or shamelessly blaming others is going to work and calls on the international community to move in to stop what it calls these reckless policies by the U.S.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon for us this morning. Thank you, Peter. We appreciate it.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.


MARTIN: All right. Special counsel Robert Mueller was very clear on one point in his investigation - Russia did indeed interfere in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, and it did so in order to help Donald Trump. Even so, when asked what to do if another country offers help in future campaigns, the president says there's no need to tell the FBI.

KING: Yeah. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are taking issue with what the president said to ABC News. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it proves he doesn't know right from wrong.


NANCY PELOSI: That's probably the nicest thing I can say, then, because if he doesn't know the difference, it could explain some of his ridiculous behavior.

KING: So Pelosi and other Democrats want changes. They want to make it illegal to not report foreign attempts to influence U.S. elections.

MARTIN: And NPR's Susan Davis is here in the studio to talk with us about it. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what are Pelosi and other Democrats talking about doing legislatively?

DAVIS: Well, first, it's important to be clear that it is already illegal to accept what is, in federal law, they say contributions or things of value from federal - from foreign governments. I think there's some dispute over whether you would consider opposition research something of value. I think most people think you would. What Pelosi said yesterday is what Democrats intend to bring up, is a new law that would mandate reporting to federal law enforcement - essentially the FBI - if any candidate for any office is approached by a foreign power.

MARTIN: Because currently that is not illegal.

DAVIS: There is not a requirement for reporting. I think this is one of those things that, when the law was written, I don't know if they thought that if a president was approached by a foreign power, it would seem obvious that you would turn this over to the federal authorities. I think that this is one of those norms that the president is challenging in some ways. And we saw that because the response on Capitol Hill from all lawmakers, Republicans alike, were if I was approached, I would turn it over. This is one of those things that seems like common sense in politics. But President Trump is challenging the way we think about it.

MARTIN: The president's remarks provoked a lot of response from Democrats. But did it change Nancy Pelosi's mind at all on whether or not to - on the issue of impeachment?

DAVIS: She said it did not. She said no one issue is going to become this automatic trigger. Democrats are continuing to move forward with their oversight and investigations and moving forward on things like this election legislation to try and make a point about the president.

MARTIN: Republicans, though, they did not get in line when - after - in the aftermath of the president's remarks to ABC News.

DAVIS: They got in line to the extent that - to the one that I've heard said, I would turn it over if I was approached. Where they are - where the difference is that they did not condemn the president for saying what he said similar to Democrats did. And the question is if these types of laws are brought up or this legislation is brought up, will any number of Republicans support it? They have generally been loath to take votes that would be seen as rebukes of the president, even as there is a pretty profound call to do things like shore up our election laws or - and our elections themselves in time for 2020.

MARTIN: One other thing I want to ask you about, a federal watchdog has recommended that White House aide Kellyanne Conway be removed from her job. Can you explain why?

DAVIS: Sure. This is the Office of Special Counsel - not that one. It's a separate federal watchdog. They essentially said that Kellyanne Conway should be removed from office - it's the first time they've ever recommended this for a White House employee - for repeated violations of the Hatch Act. That is when you use your federal office to engage in politics or electioneering.

She has done this on several occasions. She has been cited by this by the office before. She's a repeat offender, and they've essentially said she should be removed from office. Again, one of these norms - we haven't seen this happen before. The White House essentially shrugged it off, said they have no intention to remove her and that they thought the counsel - Office of Special Counsel was being overly broad in their interpretation of the law.

MARTIN: And in the end, it is the White House's decision.

DAVIS: Correct.

MARTIN: NPR's Susan Davis. Sue, thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.


MARTIN: All right. We're now going to get a rare perspective on the political upheaval happening in Sudan.

KING: Yeah. For some context, just last week, Sudan's military killed dozens of people who were holding a pro-democracy sit-in. After that, many opposition leaders went into hiding. But the opposition is saying it will not let a military dictatorship take hold again. Sudanese managed to topple the autocrat Omar al-Bashir just a couple months ago.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta is the first journalist to speak to the man who has become the face of the rebellion, and Eyder is on the line from Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Eyder, just explain for us. The last few weeks, at least the last week, we saw this big strike happening that really disrupted daily life. Through all that, you have been trying to meet with activists. Just describe what that process has been like.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It's been difficult. And more than the strike, there's been a major military crackdown. And there's no internet, which makes it difficult to communicate. And in countries like Sudan, activists usually communicate through encrypted apps. But we are now communicating with them on open lines, on phone lines. So there's a lot of nervousness, a lot of I'll meet you today - no, tomorrow.

This whole week, I've been trying to meet Mohammed Naji al-Asam. He's this young doctor who has become the face of the opposition here in Sudan. And he was jailed earlier this year. And last night at midnight, I was finally able to meet him. We talked in his car at a parking lot in front of a furniture store. And he says activists have been targeted, that they've been killed by snipers and that they're getting threats via text message. And he told me that he got threats even when he was negotiating with the military junta. Let's listen.

MOHAMMED NAJI AL-ASAM: Not at the negotiating table, but, you know, we have breaks between the negotiation session. Some of them would come forward and tell me that we have information that your life is in danger, and other members of the negotiating team as well.

PERALTA: So, like, doing you a favor.

AL-ASAM: Yeah. Yes, they are, like, doing you a favor. Please be careful.


PERALTA: He says...

MARTIN: Oh, go ahead.

PERALTA: ...They even offered to keep him in a safe place.

MARTIN: Offered to keep him in a safe place. I mean, so what does this mean for the unified nature of the military junta? I mean, is it unified right now?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, they seem unified. They had a long press conference yesterday, and they justified the crackdown. They said that, you know, protesters were doing illegal things like smoking pot. But they also seemed to make it clear that they are in no hurry to leave power. Their spokesman says that they are the only ones who can keep Sudan from crumbling and that they are responsible for keeping the peace in this country. And so they will, quote, "use whatever force they need to keep the peace."

MARTIN: So what are you going to be looking for? I mean, in this standoff, what's the next shoe to drop?

PERALTA: Well, I mean, look. The military junta says they want the opposition back at the negotiating table. And the opposition says that they don't trust them after as much violence as they've seen but that they will talk to them through an Ethiopian mediator. The opposition leader I spoke to yesterday says that he has hope that they will achieve their goals, a civilian government. But he didn't seem very hopeful that the negotiations would yield the solution to this political crisis.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting on the ground in Khartoum, Sudan. He had a rare interview with one of the Sudanese opposition leaders.

Eyder, we appreciate it. We appreciate you sharing your reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAX'S "HAIRCUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.