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News Brief: Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 9:07 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During the past two years of attention-grabbing news stories in Washington, another news story has rumbled just below the surface.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. Saudi Arabia has been seeking nuclear technology from the United States. The Saudis want nuclear power plants as they reshape their economy. They do not necessarily want to sign on to the usual limits for how that technology might be used. And the House Oversight Committee now reveals some of the Saudis' American advocates.

One-time national security adviser Michael Flynn pushed this plan despite the objections of White House lawyers. Other Trump administration officials took up the cause long after Flynn was fired.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak covers national security, and he's in our studios. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what were the concerns specifically about the Saudis asking the United States to sell them nuclear technology?

MAK: Well, there are a couple concerns raised in this new investigative document from the House Oversight Committee. Well, firstly, the law requires that Congress approve any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country. But the committee's report states that a senior director at the National Security Council reportedly ignored warnings and insisted that a decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made.

INSKEEP: Oh, so go ahead with the sale, even though Congress has not said yes or no.

MAK: Yeah. And not only that, there were concerns about possible conflicts of interest, that Michael Flynn had one possible conflict of interest that could violate the law possibly and that, according to Trump administration whistleblowers, NSC staff - National Security Council staff - were told to stop working on the nuclear technology transfer plan because of this concern.

INSKEEP: What would the conflict of interest be for Michael Flynn?

MAK: So for about seven months in 2016, including during the presidential transition itself, Flynn served as an adviser to IP3 International. That's a private company seeking to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia. The whistleblowers told the House Oversight Committee that Flynn continued to advocate for their plan, even after he joined the White House as the president's national security adviser in 2017.

INSKEEP: OK, so there's the classic kind of revolving-door problem of someone who had a job in private industry, they're advocating for a cause, then they go into the government, they're still advocating for the cause - that's one allegation. And then there's the allegation that they were trying to do this sale without Congressional approval, even though it would normally be required. But then Flynn gets fired very quickly, within weeks of becoming national security adviser. Did this plan continue to be pushed by somebody?

MAK: That's the thing about it, that despite efforts from lawyers at the very top levels of the administration, this plan appeared to continue. There were warnings that this should stop, and yet it continued to be pressed on. The plan appeared to be pushed forward with the support of Thomas Barrack. He's the person who chaired Trump's inauguration committee.

INSKEEP: Close friend to the president.

MAK: Yes, for a very long time. And he has deep ties to the Middle East, including financial ties to Saudi entities. In one memo from Mr. Flynn to President Trump, the national security adviser advocated that Mr. Barrack be named a special representative to carry out this nuclear plan.

INSKEEP: Wow. Is that all the evidence they have?

MAK: Well, the committee wants to find out if there was any part of this plan that's still under consideration. And you'll have to remember that Jared Kushner, he's scheduled to travel next week for a trip to the Middle East that includes a stop in Riyadh, which is the capital of Saudi Arabia. So this is a very pertinent issue that continues to have an effect on the administration's foreign policy.

INSKEEP: And really compelling because, of course, Saudi Arabia's been in the news over the war in Yemen and its confrontation with Iran and the U.S. confrontation with Iran and Jamal Khashoggi and so much else. But this nuclear deal has been brewing below the surface the whole time.

MAK: Absolutely. And the United States is currently reconsidering and assessing how it should be dealing with the Saudis in the wake of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

INSKEEP: Amazing story. Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Why were five Americans arrested in Haiti this week?

GREENE: Yeah, it's a big question right now. Authorities in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, confirmed that five U.S. citizens had been detained on Sunday with automatic weapons. Officials are asking who authorized their entry into the country. The arrests come as protesters have clashed with police, demanding that President Jovenel Moise resign amid rising inflation and also allegations of corruption.

INSKEEP: Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles is in Port-au-Prince, and she's on the line. Good morning.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Good morning.

INSKEEP: As best you know, who are these five Americans?

CHARLES: Well, we can tell that at least three of them are former members of the U.S. military. They're veterans. One of them actually had his VA card on him, as far as his ID. It's still strange, I mean, because what we've seen is one has a physician assistant's license, another one has a firearms license and a detective.

The other one runs some sort of an off-road engineering company. So again, you know, are these individuals - are they mercenaries, or do they all work for some private security firm? That we still do not know, and the police are still trying to get some answers because they really have not been cooperative.

INSKEEP: OK. So we don't know who hired these people - if anyone did - what they were doing there or whether they were just doing a little tourist activity there in Haiti. Now, what is the situation with the protests at this point?

CHARLES: Well, let me just go back to the previous question. Members of - who are close to the president, they've tried to float this narrative that these guys were here to do some work, some security work for the central bank. But the president of the central bank has debunked that and said he knows nothing about that at all.

And even yesterday, the prime minister himself says they were not here for the central bank. But yes, who hired them, and why were they here, and what are their jobs - we do not know, and hopefully the next couple of days we can find out.

INSKEEP: Wow. Even - so even deeper questions, as some of the more innocent explanations have been offered and shot down. How does this relate, though, to these protests that are taking place in Haiti?

CHARLES: Well, that's what we want to find out. I mean, is this - was this a protection or extraction team for the president himself? He's been under a lot of pressure from protesters, not just the opposition, but even a group of young - challengers who have been calling on, not necessarily - they've been basically calling for an account of corruption allegations involving an oil discount fund from Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Venezuela gets involved here as well. Wow. Jacqueline Charles, just the beginning of this story, I suspect. Thanks very much for your reporting.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: She is a reporter for the Miami Herald.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This next story takes us to a high-security lab in Italy.

GREENE: Yeah. Inside that lab, NPR had an exclusive look at a controversial genetic experiment. Genetically modified mosquitoes are being released, and these creatures have been designed to spread a genetic mutation. Entomologist Ruth Muller says the hope here is that this testing could eventually lead to the eradication of malaria, one of the world's deadliest diseases.

RUTH MULLER: It would be extremely significant because then you would save 450,000 children per year.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein was the only journalist allowed in the lab when this experiment began. By way of full disclosure, we should note this project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports NPR. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what did you see in that lab?

STEIN: Yeah. So, Steve, these mosquitoes, they're unlike any other kind of genetically engineered organism ever created. They do something that scientists have actually always tried to prevent genetically modified organisms from doing - they can spread a genetic modification incredibly quickly through their own species.

INSKEEP: Oh, because they reproduce so very quickly.

STEIN: Yeah, and they are - and they can mate with the natural mosquitoes and spread this mutation. And so scientists built this special lab in Italy specifically to test them. It's Terni, Italy, which is about an hour north of Rome. And inside this high-security lab is a special climate-controlled chamber. It's designed to recreate the conditions in Africa, where malaria is a huge problem.

And scientists let me come into the lab at a key moment, when they started releasing these modified mosquitoes inside this lab for the first time. So picture this - so you have this special chamber inside this lab, inside this chamber are huge mosquito cages made out of mosquito netting, and each cage contains hundreds of natural mosquitoes that spread malaria in Africa.

And I watched as the scientists very carefully placed dishes of immature, modified mosquitoes, dozens of them, inside each of these cages for the first time. And the idea, as you suggested, is that these modified mosquitoes will hopefully mate with the natural mosquitoes and spread their mutation.

INSKEEP: And this mutation, how would that save 450,000 children per year?

STEIN: Yeah. So the idea is that - OK, this is what they did, is they modified these mosquitoes using this new kind of gene-editing technique called CRISPR.

INSKEEP: Sure, you've reported on it a lot.

STEIN: Yeah. And these mosquitoes carry something called a gene drive. And the gene drive is what makes them spread their mutation so fast. And what this mutation does is it turns all the female mosquitoes into kind of mutants. They're kind of half female, half male. So they can't bite. Their mouths are like male mosquitoes, and that means they can't spread malaria.

And they're also sterile, so they can't lay eggs. So the idea is that, you know, if you release them in Africa, they can sterilize the local population of mosquitoes and spread this mutation. And hopefully, you know, help eradicate malaria.

INSKEEP: OK. That sounds amazing. Malaria is such a killer. But when you talk about sending a gene modification out into the wild, and you don't know what exactly is going to happen out there, are some people terrified?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, there - this is raising really some big concerns. I mean, the critics say, hold on a minute. I mean, these gene drive organisms like this, they are just way too dangerous. I mean, who knows what might happen if anyone ever tried to release something like this in the wild? It could, you know, mess up the environment in all sorts of ways - knock out a key species in the food chain, allow more dangerous mosquitoes to come in with other diseases.

Here's Dana Perls. She's with the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

DANA PERLS: This is an experimental technology which could have devastating impacts. We can't be taking lightly this extermination technology. We need to slow down.

INSKEEP: Well, are the scientists heeding that warning to slow down?

STEIN: Yeah. So they say, look; we understand that this technology is really new, and it raises all kinds of fears, and that's why we're being so careful about testing them in a special lab to make sure none of them escape, and even if they did escape, they're in Italy, where these mosquitoes couldn't survive.

So we're going to take this very slowly, very stepwise, test them to see if they're working and make sure that they don't have any negative effect in the environment before anyone considers releasing them into the wild.

INSKEEP: Hopefully, they have really good screens on the windows in that lab. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Oh, sure, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "EVOLVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.