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News Brief: Bolton's Exit, Guantánamo Probe, Netanyahu's Vow

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 11, 2019 6:20 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does a change in White House personnel affect the prospects for war or peace?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump fired his national security adviser yesterday. They parted because of their very different views of the world. The president acknowledged these differences from the moment that he hired John Bolton back in 2017. He said Bolton was partial to taking a hard line against U.S. adversaries.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him, he'd take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn't matter because I want both sides.

MARTIN: The president has wanted to pressure rivals but also cut deals with them.

INSKEEP: Our White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering this story. He's in our studios. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are some of the issues or parts of the world where their differences became apparent?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, there were several. I talked with Fernando Cutz, who served as a senior director at the National Security Council until last year. He said Bolton never fully bought into some of the president's key foreign policy issues.

FERNANDO CUTZ: North Korea - he was against dialogue with Kim Jong Un. On Iran, he was the one advocating for the strike that the president pulled back from in the last minute. And most recently, in Afghanistan, he opposed the talks with the Taliban. So I think you see that - you know, that they just weren't meshing.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's a lot. Let's take those again, one by one. He's against - Bolton was against dialogue with Kim Jong Un of North Korea?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, Bolton previously talked about overthrowing the North Korean leaders. Trump, as we know, wanted TV summits. He wanted to meet with Kim Jong Un. And it got so bad, at the last time that they met, Bolton was actually sent on a trip to Mongolia.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Go to somewhere else in the world. He was also against the peace initiative, peace talks with the Taliban.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that may actually have been the last straw. Trump had invited - and as we know, later disinvited - the Taliban to come to Camp David to see if a peace deal could be reached in Afghanistan. Bolton argued against this, and the coverage kind of rankled Trump and others. And this is - this could have been the thing that really pushed it over the edge.

INSKEEP: Your analyst also mentioned Iran.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Iran was a big one. You know, on one hand, Trump and Bolton were kind of aligned on getting out of the international nuclear deal. But, again, Bolton was more hawkish than Trump was comfortable. Bolton favored a strike on Iran in retaliation for some of the provocations, such as shooting down a drone, but Trump instead canceled that strikes and said he would even be willing to meet with the Iran leaders under no preconditions.

INSKEEP: So we can easily think of John Bolton as a hawk, as they say - somebody who wants take a hard line, someone who's willing to use military force. We can easily think of President Trump as someone who wants to cut deals or make peace. But is it really that simple? Was it that simple all the time?

ORDOÑEZ: Not all the time. But look - for a long time, Bolton was - you know, was always a hard-liner. He pushed for the U.S. invasion of Iraq when he was part of the George Bush administration. Trump, on the other hand, campaigned about getting out of endless wars.

INSKEEP: Did Bolton ever prevail?

ORDOÑEZ: On many issues that were important to him, the answer is basically no. But on some domestic issues, he did. He did help with, you know, President Trump in South Florida on some political issues, pushing for, you know, votes in South Florida with - after giving a very fiery speech on Venezuela. Obviously, they agreed on Iran, on the nuclear pact deal, particularly.

INSKEEP: If he was losing most of the time, though, on substantive issues, does it matter much that he's gone?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, in some cases, maybe not. It is Trump's presidency. But also, this could give, you know, a bit more power to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is often at odds on some of these key foreign policy issues, such as foreign - such as North Korea. But we'll see who replaces him. And in the end, it really - as you say, it's about President Trump. He's the one with the last word.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

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INSKEEP: A U.S. military court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, faces criticism from the inside.

MARTIN: Yeah, it comes from a lawyer who worked there. The United States built a court and a prison on a naval base in Cuba. Construction started after the 9/11 attacks, which we should note happened 18 years ago today. The prison was supposed to house terror suspects from around the world and, in some cases, put them on trial. NPR has learned the lawyer has filed a federal whistleblower complaint, alleging gross waste of funds and gross mismanagement.

INSKEEP: The whistleblower spoke with Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team, who's in our studio. Good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Who's this whistleblower?

PFEIFFER: His name is Gary Brown. He's a retired Air Force colonel, and he was a career military lawyer. And for - from 2017 to 2018, he was legal adviser to the man who used to run Guantanamo's military court.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is a guy who was inside the system. And what does he say about it?

PFEIFFER: He said that when he got there, he was very surprised by the lack of progress in about 18 years - only one finalized conviction - and the expense of the place. I mean, over about 17, 18 years, it's spent $6 billion. He felt like a lot of that was waste. Here's what he has to say about what he saw of spending.

GARY BROWN: It's a lot of money. Half a billion dollars is a lot of money. And if we're spending that much money year after year, we ought to see some results.

INSKEEP: That figure he just gave, half a billion dollars, is that an annual spending figure these days?

PFEIFFER: In some years, the spending has been more than half a billion dollars, correct, on the military court and the prison there, together.

INSKEEP: Where does that money go?

PFEIFFER: You know, it's a gigantic operation down there. They have many, many lawyers. They have translators. They have linguists. They have court reporters, investigators, expert witnesses, tons of money spent on travel getting there and back - they have to fly to Cuba every time they want a hearing - construction, housing, vehicles. It's just a massive amount of money. Taxpayer-funded charter planes that are sometimes not that full because they have to get people down and back very quickly. So it's a giant amount of money, and it's just been going on for almost 20 years.

INSKEEP: It's almost like they have to have their own airline to service this...

PFEIFFER: Government charter planes taking people down.

INSKEEP: ...Prison and court and so forth. But there is another issue, according to your reporting, that actually got this guy fired, he says, that is not just about money - although it affects the cost - but it's also about a question of life or death. What was it?

PFEIFFER: Yes. So the issue is that some of these prisoners are facing the death penalty, and Gary Brown believes that it's probably unlikely that prosecutors can get death penalty convictions or that they might be overturned. And he says, all right, then - and the other issue here is that even if there are convictions, the appeals process is probably going to take 15 years, he says, and cost another $1.5 billion.

INSKEEP: Wow.

PFEIFFER: Now, meanwhile, if they are found not guilty at trial, the government has said, we can keep them locked up indefinitely, anyway. So Gary Brown's point is, basically, why are we doing this? Why don't we take the death penalty off the table, have them plead guilty and return for life in prison, and then we can speed the process up and try to shut the military court down?

INSKEEP: When he said that, while he was inside the system, what happened to him?

PFEIFFER: He - they did actually start plea negotiations. They were fired, and he believes the reason they were fired is because some government officials believe the death penalty or nothing for these terrorists, these alleged terrorists.

INSKEEP: Oh, so Brown tried to proceed without the death penalty, and he was effectively overruled and, he says, lost his job.

PFEIFFER: Correct. I've spoken to lawyers, top lawyers, for all of these six death penalty defendants, and they have said negotiations had been initiated, but then they were fired before they continued.

INSKEEP: What's the Pentagon say about this complaint?

PFEIFFER: Not a lot. I asked, for the past month, for someone to speak with me on tape, and they said they couldn't provide me one. The numbers they've given have changed over time. It's hard to get reliable numbers out of them. So they haven't said much.

INSKEEP: Sacha, thanks so much.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. And you can find more on this story at npr.org.

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INSKEEP: Israel's prime minister has sharpened his promise to annex part of the West Bank.

MARTIN: Yeah, he has made this promise as he seeks reelection. Netanyahu has talked about this before in his campaign; now he's being more specific, though, saying which land Israel would claim first. The promise and resulting criticism come just weeks before Israelis vote - actually, next week. Their second election of the year.

INSKEEP: Benjamin Netanyahu, once again, trying to keep his job. NPR's Daniel Estrin is covering this story. Daniel, good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: So what is the more specific promise?

ESTRIN: Well, he's saying that if he wins reelection and forms a government, Israel would immediately apply sovereignty over a long stretch of the West Bank - the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area. That's about 30% of the West Bank. And many Israelis will tell you this is a strategic area, important to Israel's security. And Netanyahu says this would establish a permanent eastern border for Israel. And he's saying that with his close ties to Trump, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something like this.

INSKEEP: So let's just recall - this is land that Israel captured in a war in 1967. The United Nations regards it as occupied land, has had an expectation for a long time that Israel would give it back in some way, subject to negotiations. So what would be the significance if Israel instead said a big chunk of the West Bank - not all of it, but a big chunk of it - would just be part of Israel?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, I mean, Israel does already occupy the area. But like you say, this would declare that Israel's presence there is permanent. And the possibility of a two-state solution to this conflict - having Palestine along Israel - is already dwindling, but this plan by Netanyahu could make it even trickier to achieve. You'd have Israeli territory completely surrounding the west of - the rest of the West Bank. You'd have tens of thousands of Palestinians inside the area that Netanyahu wants to annex, and they'd need passageways in and out. Very complex.

And we're hearing lots of opposition already to this plan. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.N. are objecting. The Palestinian leader is saying if Netanyahu pulls this off, that he would call off all existing agreements with Israel. Now, like you say, if Netanyahu actually does this, it would go against this position of the world, most of the world, that the fate of the West Bank should be decided in peace talks.

INSKEEP: Would Netanyahu really go through with this last-minute election promise?

ESTRIN: That's a very good question. It's days now before the last - before the election. And last election, last spring, he gave this similar promise to start annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His rivals are saying, Netanyahu, you know, you've been in office for 10 years straight. Why wait with a plan until a week before elections? You are just trying to attract right-wing voters. That's what they're saying. And Netanyahu, according to polls, could once again fail to secure a majority in Parliament. So that could be fatal to his political career, and making this kind of promise is something that could help him.

INSKEEP: President Trump has been very vocally supportive of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is the president supportive in this case?

ESTRIN: Very curious, Steve, because the Trump administration didn't reject Netanyahu's announcement; it didn't welcome it, either. And you really have to wonder if Trump would back such a thing. The administration says they're about to present its peace plan after Israeli elections, and perhaps Trump could say, well, here's my peace plan; please hold off, Israel, in any unilateral moves.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.