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Morning News Brief

Jul 24, 2018
Originally published on July 24, 2018 5:45 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of some former high-level officials who have criticized him.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. At a White House briefing yesterday, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders read a list of officials who could lose their clearance for top-secret information. Sanders says it's not just because these former top officials have all had tough words for the president. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is on this list. Here's his response on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANDERSON COOPER 360")

JAMES CLAPPER: I mean, this is real abuse of the clearance system. And is that now going to become a criterion for obtaining a clearance anywhere in the government, is a pledge of fealty or loyalty to President Trump?

MARTIN: Former CIA Director Michael Hayden also replied, saying in a Twitter post that the move by the White House would have no effect on what I say or write.

KING: All right, Tom Bowman is with us now. He's NPR's Pentagon correspondent. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So I guess the big question is - does the president have the authority to do this?

BOWMAN: You know, the president does have the authority to do this. But from what I can tell looking back over history, it's never been done really in a political way. Now, the people Sarah Sanders named have all criticized the president's behavior. And that's not typical for such former national security officials. But the president also has been quite scorching at times and highly critical of these officials as well, sometimes personal attacks.

People have lost clearances for other reasons like mishandling classified information. There was John Deutch, a former CIA director; Sandy Berger, former national security adviser - but again, never losing a clearance for criticizing a president. And also, of the ones Sarah Sanders mentioned, two of them don't have clearances anymore, former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe both lost theirs when they left the FBI.

KING: All right, so maybe a bit of an oversight there. Yesterday, a reporter at a press briefing asked Sarah Sanders - look, are you guys making this political? Are you doing this because these people have criticized the president? Here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH SANDERS: The president is exploring these mechanisms to remove security clearance because they've politicized and, in some cases, actually monetized their public service and their security clearances.

KING: So I guess it's worth asking. Are people using security clearance to make money?

BOWMAN: Well, the so-called revolving door in Washington...

KING: Yeah.

BOWMAN: ...Where people trade government experience for high-paying jobs in the private sector, that's been a concern for decades among both Democrats and Republicans. And it's true that a clearance makes you more marketable in such places as, you know, defense contracting. But in this case, all these folks have been in government posts for decades. Some of them are in their 60s or 70s. So in this case, it seems kind of misplaced. It's not like my long-term ploy is to spend 30, 40 years in government service, and I'm going to start cashing in. It's a concern but not really in this case. That just doesn't make any sense.

KING: Well, let me ask you quickly. Why do ex-officials get security clearance in the first place? Why doesn't it go away when they leave their jobs?

BOWMAN: Well, for people that were mentioned, they have great expertise. Sometimes they're called back to their old places, like CIA or FBI, to help brief current officials. And you lose that expertise if you pull their security clearances and they can no longer go to classified briefings.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right, there is some new satellite imagery which shows that North Korea has apparently started dismantling its main satellite launch facility.

MARTIN: Right. This would seem to be a gesture towards slowing the country's nuclear weapons program. And if it's true, it would show that Kim Jong Un may be following through on some of what he promised President Trump during their summit in Singapore last month. So the big question is whether this is a real move by the North to keep its promises or just an incremental step that makes it look that way.

KING: Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal has been covering this story. And he's with us now from Seoul via Skype. Good morning, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CHENG: Hi, there.

KING: So what was North Korea doing in this facility that's being dismantled?

CHENG: Well, what we have from 38 North - this is a website that watches North Korea, and they do turn a lot to satellite imagery - is that we can see this test building and this - quite technical, but basically, they're taking it down. And they're appearing to dismantle it. And this follows through on what Kim Jong Un did say to Donald Trump, apparently, during their meeting that they were going to do this. It wasn't in the final statement. Donald Trump revealed it in the press conference to reporters after their meeting had ended.

KING: 38 North is a very well-respected website. But I wonder, is there any other mechanism for international verification?

CHENG: Not in this case. And that's one of the concerns is typically, what North Korea has done in the past is they've invited journalists and sometimes experts to come in and observe when this happens just so that, you know, they can certify it and say that this has been done properly. We saw them dismantle their nuclear test site in the northeast. This is an underground site. In that case in April, they only invited journalists, no experts. And so there was a lot of concern there about whether or not they were really doing what they said that they were doing. The journalists weren't experts. They could capture the footage, and we could all look at it as laypeople. But it was hard to say any more than that. And so you have that same concern here, too.

KING: Jonathan, there's a related story that we here at NPR are reporting this morning. South Korea says it plans to scale back the number of its guard posts along the border with the North and withdraw some military equipment. Now, the South said this is kind of a test of an agreement that it made at its summit with the North in April. What do you think this means? Is this a good sign?

CHENG: Well, this is another trust-building sign, I think, on the part of the South Korean government. The president, Moon Jae-in, has made it a real policy of his to pursue engagement with North Korea but also these sort of symbolic things that lower the temperature. And of course, this is more than symbolic when you're removing troops...

KING: Yeah.

CHENG: ...From the front lines, you are really sending a signal to say - look; we trust you. And it's consistent with removing propaganda broadcast speakers that they also had at the Demilitarized Zone. So it's all of a piece here. And I think it's an attempt to keep the mood good even as questions start to rise about how sincere North Korea really is.

KING: The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Cheng. Thanks, Jonathan.

CHENG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. A document dump has caught the guardians of America's national monuments tinkering with some important facts.

MARTIN: Yeah. OK, let's explain. The Washington Post got its hands on some documents from the Interior Department. These documents show how officials at that agency apparently dismissed evidence about the benefits of national monuments. According to the Post, these officials disregarded the evidence in order to justify shrinking the size of these public spaces, thereby opening up more land for logging, ranching and the development of energy. These documents didn't come from whistleblowers or government transparency advocates but from the Department of the Interior itself. Then, the agency actually tried to retract them.

KING: But not in time. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reported this story. She's with us now. Good morning, Juliet.

JULIET EILPERIN: Good morning.

KING: All right, so what was in these documents?

EILPERIN: Well, it really gave us an inside look on how Interior Department officials sifted through information last year as they looked at drafting recommendations for the president on what monument designations that have been made over the last couple of decades should be altered in some ways.

KING: So there was - in these documents, there were suggestions that designating land as a public monument is a good thing for some reasons. It's good for tourism, for example. It's good for finding archaeological artifacts. Those facts about the positives were left out deliberately.

EILPERIN: Right. You can see in submissions, including from the government itself from agencies within the Interior Department like the Bureau of Land Management. And while, for example, many of these officials were pointing out some of those facts, ultimately, they were not included in both the final set of recommendations and also not reflected in President Trump's actions, particularly as he chose to shrink a couple of major monuments in Utah.

KING: So the Interior Department, as Rachel said, did not mean to release these documents to reporters. How did it happen?

EILPERIN: So what happened is that every time - there are ongoing Freedom of Information Act requests that have been filed by many news outlets as well as some advocacy groups. And because this is such a massive amount of information, they produced it over time in different releases. When they do that, the lawyers and top officials and the FOIA officials go through, and they point out what should be redacted, what should be blacked out, essentially, when we get these documents. But on July 16, when they sent this out widely to a huge number of people, they put the unredacted documents up and didn't alert anyone till roughly 24 hours later.

KING: All right. So you sort of figured it out and took a look. Are there any - aside from some embarrassment, I'm sure - are there any ramifications for the Department of the Interior? Or are they likely to change course on shrinking national monuments?

EILPERIN: It's unlikely that this will, for example, shift the calculations of the administration, although we could see - and this information's out in the public domain. What's interesting is it's unclear whether this information can be used in court. There are a number of groups that are challenging these decisions made in Utah. And what we'll have to see is how this plays out in litigation.

KING: Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Thanks so much, Juliet.

EILPERIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE SONG, "LUCKY LADY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.