News Brief: Impeachment Inquiry, Syria Policy, Chinese Tech Firms Blacklisted

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 8, 2019 11:31 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump told reporters that he, quote, "consulted with everybody. I always consult with everybody." But if that's true, why were even some of his closest advisers left in the dark even at the Pentagon?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. Two U.S. officials have told NPR that military leaders directly involved in countering ISIS were caught off guard by Trump's sudden policy shift. Late on Sunday, the White House announced that U.S. troops will withdraw from an area near the Syrian border with Turkey. This is where Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. have been helping the Trump administration fight ISIS. But Turks see those Kurdish forces as terrorists. And if the United States leaves, that clears the way for Turks to attack those Kurdish militias.

Even President Trump's closest friends in Congress say this is no way to treat an ally and that the move will undercut U.S. foreign policy in the region. Here's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham speaking on Fox News.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I expect the American president to do what's in our national security interest. It's never in our national security interest to abandon an ally who's helped us fight ISIS. It's never in our national security interest to create the conditions for the reemergence of ISIS.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we've got NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with us this morning.

So Tom, you spoke with two U.S. officials on the condition of anonymity. What did they tell you?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, they said they're stunned and also worried, and there were several concerns. They fear Turkey will launch a military operation into northeast Syria and leave the American-allied Kurdish forces alone to fight Turkey. They worry those Kurdish forces will also abandon the anti-ISIS fight to focus on Turkey. Now, the caliphate is no more, as President Trump says. But what he failed to say is ISIS is regrouping and slipping back into cities and towns, mounting assassinations, bombings.

One of the U.S. officials who spoke with NPR says this is reminiscent of last December, when the president abruptly said he wanted all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria. Pentagon officials convinced Trump to keep about 1,000 troops in northeast Syria to continue the fight against ISIS.

MARTIN: So the actual physical caliphate may have been destroyed, but you just said there, ISIS is still clearly a threat. What does the Pentagon say about what appears to be a retreat? Right? I mean, is the U.S. abandoning the fight against ISIS altogether?

BOWMAN: Well, no, they're not. But they're - they do say, again, ISIS is regrouping and could gain even more strength. There are still thousands of ISIS fighters who have kind of gone to ground in Syria and Iraq. U.S. troops are working with local forces to go after them. So again, this pullback of U.S. forces and the possible military operation by Turkey could make all that worse. And besides that, of course, there are many civilians who would get caught in the crossfire here.

MARTIN: And it seems - I mean, if you outsource this fight to Turkey, is it really going to work because does Turkey share the same priorities? I mean, if the U.S. wants and has been fighting with these Kurds against ISIS, does Turkey really want to get rid of ISIS, or do they really just want to get rid of the Kurds?

BOWMAN: Their focus is on the Kurds. They're - they see the Kurds in Syria as aligned with the Kurds they call terrorists in Turkey. So they're going to definitely focus on the Kurds as opposed to ISIS. But the problem is - in going after the Kurds and - is what some say is abandoning the U.S. ally, they'll just make matters worse by having ISIS just move into the breach.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tom Bowman for us this morning. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.

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MARTIN: There is a new name attached to the impeachment inquiry, a man by the name of Gordon Sondland.

GREENE: Right. OK. So he's the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And because of a series of text message conversations he was part of, he is now a key witness in the impeachment hearings. Today he's going to testify in a closed-door deposition on Capitol Hill. Those online messages were handed over to Congress as evidence last week, and the House Intelligence Committee will want to know more about Sondland's interactions with Ukrainian officials.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been digging into Sondland's background and joins us now. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: What do we know about him?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, we know that Gordon Sondland is a big Republican donor who, like Trump, made his money managing hotels. It appears that he hasn't held a full-time position in government before this. He's what's known as a political appointee. But he did have support from Democrats as well.

Here's Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon, during the nomination process.

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RON WYDEN: If you look at the totality of the experience that the Sondlands bring to this post at a time when lots of politics is polarized and divisive, Gordon Sondland's going to be a really good fit.

ORDOÑEZ: Interestingly, relations with Trump were not always great. Sondland backed out of a Seattle fundraiser in 2016 after Trump criticized the parents of a Muslim American soldier. Sondland himself is a son of Jewish parents who escaped persecution from Germany. But any hard feelings really didn't last that long because Sondland later donated a million dollars to the president-elect's inaugural fund.

Some Democrats now, though, are already calling for him to resign amid this controversy - 12 according to an NBC survey. They include Tim Ryan of Ohio, Lloyd Doggett of Texas. Others are saying they want to wait till after the testimony.

MARTIN: OK. So that's helpful in understanding kind of where he came from and his relationship with the president. But how did he get embroiled in the Ukraine scandal? I mean, he's the U.S. ambassador to the EU. But Ukraine isn't even part of the EU, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It's odd. You know, my sources close to the administration tell me that it's not - you know, not regular for an EU ambassador to be dealing with the Ukraine. That's something that Democrats are obviously going to want to learn more about during his testimony. You know, there are already a lot of players there - Kurt Volker, who was a special envoy working to end the conflict of Russia - with Russia, Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He's engaged in energy talks. But Sondland got close to Trump. He even told Ukrainian TV that Trump gave him a special assignment overseeing relations between the two countries.

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GORDON SONDLAND: We have what are called the three amigos, and the three amigos are Secretary Perry, again, Ambassador Volker and myself. And we've been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-U.S. relationship.

MARTIN: The three amigos.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. And I should say this is all happening as Trump and his officials were pushing out the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who's going to talk later.

MARTIN: Right. So what kinds of questions are the House Democrats going to put to him today?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, as you know, he's at the center of the Ukraine matter. One of the first questions is likely to be about those texts to Kurt Volker about Trump wanting a deliverable. He appeared to be talking about an invitation for the Ukraine president to Washington, being tied to commitments of an investigation to the Biden family. He'll also be asked about a July 19 text exchange about securing cooperation from the Ukraine president. Sondland told diplomats after talking to Zelenskiy that he got it. The deposition today is closed, but you can expect some really revealing answers to those kind of questions will come out.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Franco Ordoñez following it for us. Thanks. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK. So last night, the Trump administration announced that it's adding 28 Chinese organizations to a trade blacklist because of human rights abuses.

GREENE: Right, specifically the detention of a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China. Beijing says these detentions are a counterterrorism measure. China's government also claims that the detention camps are actually vocational training centers and that China has released most of the people held there.

MARTIN: NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng, though, found a different story. She joins us now. Hey, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: So you've been reporting the story about Uighurs who are detained in China. But to report this out, you went to neighboring Kazakhstan. Explain why.

FENG: Yeah. Well, it's because it's not just Uighurs who are being detained. There other ethnic minorities, including Kazakhs, who have been detained. And they have family in Kazakhstan, where it's so much easier to talk to people instead of physically going Xinjiang, which I have been to and where I'm often physically followed and intimidated by local security. So for this story...

MARTIN: Xinjiang, we should say, is the province in China where they have these detention camps for Uighurs and other minorities.

FENG: Yes, the region in China. So for this story, I went to Almaty, Kazakhstan. And when I was there, I talked to 31 people who had relatives detained in Xinjiang or they themselves had been detained in Xinijang. And they described how they knew 32 relatives or friends who had, in this year alone, been given prison sentences of five to 20 years. And their friends and relatives had been sentenced in these show trials, basically, where there was no legal counsel present, there was nothing but a verdict read out. And they clearly were targeting people with religious backgrounds.

Of the 32 people we learned had been sentenced, 23 of them were imams, religious students or prayed five times a day, all of which are activities that are constitutionally allowed in China. Here's Gulbaran Omirali, a Kazakh woman whose nephew, Bahedati Aken, was just sentenced to 15 years this year.

GULBARAN OMIRALI: (Through interpreter) He was 13 when he attended two months of religious courses. I do not understand why something so long ago and which was legal at the time is now a crime.

FENG: So yes, China is moving people out of detention camps they've constructed all over Xinijang. But it's not like these people are walking free and going home. They're being sent to rapidly expanding prisons...

MARTIN: Wow.

FENG: ...Through these sham trials. And by sentencing them to prison, China's effectively formalizing this detention system, which they built up really quickly, and at the time, arguably, didn't have a legal basis.

MARTIN: So what are these families and people who've actually been released - who haven't been sent to prison - what are they telling you about their lives?

FENG: Yeah. I did talk to a few relatives who said - you know what? - their loved ones had been released. But Xinjiang has built up a surveillance state through on-the-ground policing and technology that's so advanced that even these detainees who go home are essentially under watch all the time. They're in this open-air prison. They still have to report their weekly activities. They have to get permission to travel. I even talked to one woman who said her sister got married this year but had to ask for permission first.

MARTIN: So they can't just leave. Right? They're living - they're "free," quote-unquote. But I mean, this - living in this heavy surveillance kind of state, you would think they would want to just get out. But they can't, presumably.

FENG: Yeah. One thing that we discovered was some people have been allowed to leave this year. They've been able to get passports and visit family in Kazakhstan, but they have to keep guarantors, basically human collateral or loved ones who will be punished if they don't come back to China and if they tell people too much about what's happening in Xinjiang.

MARTIN: Wow. So they have to actually name someone, a family member or a friend.

FENG: Yes.

MARTIN: Wow. NPR's Emily Feng, thank you so much for following this. We appreciate it.

FENG: Thanks, Rachel.

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