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Morning News Brief: Republican Memo, Myanmar Mass Graves

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Depending on who you ask, this is a battle over the public's right to know or a battle over whether information is even worth knowing.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This battle is over a classified memo. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted earlier this week to release this document. Very few people have seen this. It is said to accuse the FBI of missteps early on in the Russia investigation. The memo was put together by Chairman Devin Nunes. He stepped back from the committee's Russia investigation but then became fixated on what he sees as political bias at the FBI.

The bureau says the memo doesn't tell the whole story, and the FBI itself released this extraordinary statement saying it has, quote, "grave concerns" about the possible release. President Trump could still keep the document from becoming public. But, Steve, he was caught on mic at the State of the Union in a conversation with one lawmaker, saying the memo will be released 100 percent.

INSKEEP: So does that really mean 100 percent? Well, let's ask Tamara Keith, who hosts NPR's Politics Podcast, among many other duties.

Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So can the president - would the president really release this when his own FBI says in public it's a bad idea?

KEITH: Yes, absolutely, 100 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: OK. Well, that settles that.

KEITH: And it could happen as soon as today. Now, what I should say is that the president and the White House give the signoff, but the committee itself is where the memo would be released from.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is it? And I guess we should stipulate once again, not for the first time this week, nobody has actually read the memo. Only - nobody in the public has read this memo. But based on what we know, what is the FBI saying is wrong with this memo?

KEITH: Right. Members of the public have not read the memo, but people at the White House now have read a version of the memo, and also, members of Congress have read the memo. What the White House is saying is that they, as you say, have grave concerns about material emissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy. That's the key sentence from the statement they put out. Now, Devin Nunes responds that, quote, "it's no surprise to see the FBI and Department of Justice issue spurious objections."

And here's the thing. The president of the United States has been beating up on the FBI, the intelligence community, the Russia investigation for months now. And so the FBI, which, in the past, when the FBI says this would be a bad thing to release, generally, the response would be, oh, gosh, this might not be a great thing to release. Now a lot of people are saying, well, then what's the FBI hiding? Especially people who are allies of President Trump.

INSKEEP: OK, so then there's the question of what Devin Nunes may be hiding, which is being raised by Adam Schiff, his Democratic counterpart, who's saying the memo changed in some way. Why would that be a problem?

KEITH: Yeah, so Schiff is saying that the Republicans changed the memo before sending it to the White House for review but after the committee voted to release it. Schiff is saying now the committee would need to vote again. Nunes' team is downplaying all of that, saying it was just some minor changes. But all of this just muddies the whole thing up.

INSKEEP: Aren't there Democrats who think that's the purpose, to muddy the whole thing up?

KEITH: Oh, of course, of course. And now Republicans are saying that Democrats are trying to muddy up their memo. It's - it is - this is a remarkable thing and is sort of a sideshow to the broader Russia investigation, which, you know, is not getting as much attention because we simply don't know where that stands.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll see what the memo says if, in fact, at some point, we do. Tamara, thank you very much.

KEITH: Exactly. You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We have some news now from Myanmar, where several mass graves have been discovered in a Rohingya village.

MARTIN: This village was the site of a massacre by soldiers back in August. And we know about these graves because a survivor actually captured video on his cellphone. Then he wrapped his memory card in plastic, tied it to his thigh and fled over the border to Bangladesh, where he then shared this video with a reporter from The Associated Press.

INSKEEP: A reporter named Foster Klug, who joins us now from Seoul.

Welcome to the program.

FOSTER KLUG: Hello.

INSKEEP: Let's remember the basics. When we talk about Rohingya in Myanmar, who are we talking about?

KLUG: We're talking about a group of Muslims who have been long persecuted because of their religion. They have been the focus of attacks by their Buddhist neighbors and by the military for decades. In August after an Islamic insurgent attack along the border, the military came in, and in a series of operations that have lasted for months, have driven out close to 700,000 Rohingya into, you know, very bad refugee camps on the other side of the border in Bangladesh.

INSKEEP: So we knew that there was this brutal military operation, but now you have obtained this video. What does it show?

KLUG: It shows very graphic images of bodies that have - appear to be half-buried in mass graves in their village. They sort of emerged from the earth. There's evidence of what appears to be acid, sort of this blue-green sludge that surrounds many of them. That - the survivors we talked to, and we talked to almost three dozen of them, say it was evidence of acid that the military poured on the faces of these bodies so that people couldn't identify who was dead.

INSKEEP: OK. You just said that in addition to having a video, you've talked to about three dozen survivors. Does that leave you with no doubt that this video is authentic?

KLUG: Yeah. We felt very confident in putting this out because of that many people we talked to. We not only talked to these people first and got very uniform agreement on where these graves were, what had happened - the basics. We then found this video and ran them by, you know, dozens of people. And we not only found, you know, people agreeing on things as small as, you know, a banana plant near a person they knew, a rice field or the background vista or the accents, you know, that sort of told them that these people were from their village - and in some cases, actually picking out the name of the people who were talking.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, has Myanmar's military offered any explanation for what happened?

KLUG: No. They're not answering our calls. We managed to reach one person who said they hadn't heard of any such massacres. And that's something they typically say when confronted with these reports.

INSKEEP: Mr. Klug, thank you very much.

KLUG: Thanks.

INSKEEP: The Associated Press reporter Foster Klug.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now let's turn to Kenya, where the government has taken three major news stations off the air.

MARTIN: Yeah, and this appears to be punishment for the station's coverage of a major protest event that happened earlier this week. And then last night, police officers actually showed up at one of the newsrooms. Linus Kaikai is an editor, and he described the scene.

LINUS KAIKAI: There is a bit of a situation. Apparently, I could be arrested. So we're in the office, and there are policemen in the building, so I'm not able to talk now.

MARTIN: No journalists were arrested, but there are also no signs that the media blackout is going to end anytime soon.

INSKEEP: Now let's go to NPR's Eyder Peralta, who covers Kenya.

Eyder, where are you, exactly?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I am in front of NTV, which is one of those newsrooms that has been blacked out by the government, and - you heard from at the intro here, spent the night in the newsroom because they were tipped off that if they left the newsroom, they would be arrested. Now, you know, what the government is saying is they are arresting these journalists because they see them as complicit with this event that happened. And, you know, this was the opposition leader declaring himself president, and they view that as nothing short of a coup - they being the government. So they think that the media coverage of it is complicit with a coup in this country.

INSKEEP: OK. You - we lost you for a couple of seconds there, Eyder, which made me think maybe you'd been taken off the air, but fortunately, you came back. I believe we heard you say the journalists in that station where you are are staying in the newsroom, fearing arrest if they go out of the newsroom. Can I just ask, is there a right of free speech or free expression in Kenya?

PERALTA: This is very, very rare in Kenya. I'll tell you a quick story. You know, on Monday - on Tuesday when this event was going on, this mock inauguration was going on, I then took a walk around downtown. And this group of young people came up to me, and they said, what happened? Because the government had blocked all the stations from coverage. And, you know, that doesn't happen in Kenya. It happens in countries neighboring Kenya. It happens in Ethiopia and Uganda, where the media is often the - you know, attacked by the government. But it doesn't happen in Kenya.

Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions in - on the continent, and also, it has, you know, media freedom. People here are free to speak their minds, and the media is very vibrant and free. And so this is very rare, and it worries a lot of observers that Kenya is moving back to the days where it had an authoritarian government under Daniel arap Moi.

INSKEEP: Couple of seconds here - this parallel inauguration, of course, came after a disputed election. Very briefly, how divided is society?

PERALTA: It's very divided, and we'll see how this plays out. There is a court case right now moving its way through the court to see if whether this move by the government is constitutional or not.

INSKEEP: OK. Eyder, thanks very much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi, Kenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINACK'S "ONDAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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