News Brief: American Detainees Freed, Israel Strikes Targets In Syria

May 10, 2018
Originally published on May 10, 2018 11:25 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The photos of this moment were pretty amazing. The three American men who had been detained in North Korea are now free men, and these photos captured them arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in the dark hours early this morning.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, they walked off the plane and one of the men Kim Dong Chul raised his hands in the air, giving the V sign for victory. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump were standing next to the men with huge smiles on their faces. And the crowd that was assembled at Andrews Air Force Base applauded in celebration.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

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GREENE: Now, these three men flew back to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who had been visiting Pyongyang to set the stage for the upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. So is the release of these prisoners the first step to securing peace on the Korean Peninsula?

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now.

Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So a dramatic morning, to be sure. These men had been in detention in North Korea for at least over a year. Right?

LIASSON: That's right. Two of them were taken during the Trump administration. One of them was taken hostage during the Obama administration. And they were very, very grateful to be home. They issued a statement saying they thank God, our families and friends and President Trump. They said God bless America, the greatest nation in the world.

MARTIN: So the big question now - I mean, President Trump has said this is a great good faith effort on the part of Kim Jong Un. But what does it practically mean in terms of laying the groundwork for this summit?

LIASSON: Well, certainly the president sees this as a very good sign. The fact that he came out to greet these men in the middle of the night shows you how much he sees their release as a symbol of the upcoming success of his meeting with Kim Jong Un. He said he was very optimistic. He predicted a great success. He said he thinks Kim really wants to do something. He said, I think he did this because he wants to do something to bring his country into the real world.

So the president got something he can call a success. North Korea also got a big victory. They're about to have their leaders stand on the world stage next to the president of the United States...

MARTIN: Right.

LIASSON: ...Something that North Korean leaders have wanted for decades. But the goals of the two countries are still far apart. The president said his goal is complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to ensure the survival of the regime. So how to square those two goals is going to be very difficult.

MARTIN: Do we know when the summit is supposed to take place yet?

LIASSON: No, we don't. The president said he's going to announce a date and time in the next couple of days - lots of speculation that the meeting will be in Singapore now that the demilitarized zone has been ruled out. The president had suggested maybe that would have been a good place to hold the meeting. But probably in the next couple of weeks.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Mara Liasson for us this morning.

Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, it's an understatement to say the war in Syria is complicated. There are several different countries fighting for their own interests there. And the particular conflict between Israel and Iran took a turn for the worse last night.

GREENE: Yeah, it started in the Golan Heights, where air sirens were going off last night.

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GREENE: Iran sent 20 rockets towards Israeli forces in the region. And Israel responded with strikes on multiple Iranian military targets in Syria. And this comes in the wake of several weeks of escalating, sometimes lethal violence between Iran and Israel.

LIASSON: All right, we've got Jane Ferguson with us. She is a special correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour."

Jane, can you tell us more about what happened last night specifically?

JANE FERGUSON: Yeah, those air sirens - they sounded around 1 a.m. in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. And they were basically followed up with an announcement by the IDF that they had received - or they'd intercepted 20 rockets being fired, they say, from the Iranian Kurds forces towards the Golan Heights. They say they intercepted four with the defensive Iron Dome system here in Israel that has been in place for years. That's the Iron Dome many people have heard of whenever rockets come from areas like Gaza, the same system there. And that they - they either intercepted them all, or the others fell short of their target.

So there were no casualties. But of course, at such a tense time, it did create quite a panic. But what I'm hearing - I'm here in Jerusalem. Up in the Golan Heights, it's a hugely popular tourist destination. And we're, of course, getting into the tourist season.

MARTIN: Right.

FERGUSON: And people up there are saying that it is still fairly relaxed - that, you know, tourists are still packing out hotels. And bars and restaurants are still full and that, you know, there doesn't seem to be any mass exodus from that area just right now.

MARTIN: I mean, what does this indicate? I mean, things are now getting worse between these two countries?

FERGUSON: It's certainly an escalation. What this is is it's the first time we've seen Iranian rockets fired directly towards Israel in this conflict. What we've seen over the last two years - you know, Iran has become heavily involved in the war in Syria, you know, propping up the Assad regime but at the same time entrenching itself militarily, bringing in military forces and creating its own presence on Syrian military bases and, the Israelis say, building their own military bases.

Now, of course Syria is just across the border from Israel. That's a huge concern for the Israeli government and the Israeli security forces. So they have already been hitting Iranian targets inside Syria for some time. Dozens of airstrikes have taken place. But this is the first time we've really seen such a reaction as this. But that said, those Israeli airstrikes inside Syria have been becoming more common, more frequent and more deadly because they have been killing Iranians.

MARTIN: I mean, all this is not happening in a vacuum. Right? President Trump has just announced his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. How is that playing into this particular conflict between Israel and Iran?

FERGUSON: It's definitely important. Now, these rockets fired by the Iranians, those are not in reaction to the U.S. pulling out of the deal, but they could be as a result of the timing. Basically, we've been waiting in the region for some time for an Iranian reaction. They vowed that they would react, and they hadn't yet. Now, of course most people believe that's because they knew they had a lot to lose. And with any chance of saving the Iran deal, they had a lot to lose by firing those rockets. But you know, as we've seen, as soon as the Iran deal - the Trump administration has pulled out, we're seeing that the Iranians have decided to go ahead and retaliate, in their minds, for what they say are the Israeli strikes against them and Syria.

MARTIN: All right, Jane Ferguson with "PBS NewsHour" in Jerusalem this morning for us.

Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

FERGUSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, some not-so-great news this morning for those of us still paying off student loans.

GREENE: That's right. There are some watchdog groups who say it's about to get a lot easier for predatory lenders to target people with student loans. This is because of changes the Trump administration is making at a federal consumer protection office that has helped return close to a billion dollars to student borrowers. That office is being reorganized. And critics are worried this move will strip it of its critical powers, like the ability to crack down on illegal lending activities.

MARTIN: All right, we are joined in the studio by NPR's Chris Arnold. He has gotten his hands on this internal government memo that outlines what's happening here.

What does this memo say?

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel and David. So this involves the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ARNOLD: And this is an ongoing story that we've been covering where, basically, the president has put in charge of this agency perhaps the guy who disliked it the most. This is former Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney. And back when he was a congressman, he sponsored legislation to abolish the bureau. He was part of a group of Republicans who felt it was too powerful.

MARTIN: Right.

ARNOLD: So since he's come on board, he's done a series of steps to water down its mission. And in this latest one, he's taken this unit at the bureau that works to protect student loan borrowers and essentially given it a demotion...

MARTIN: OK.

ARNOLD: ...And put it under the control of a different part of the agency that does, like, financial education stuff. That doesn't sound necessarily so terrible.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ARNOLD: But I'll explain why people are upset about it. But current and former staffers say, like, this is an attempt to stop this unit from doing its job.

MARTIN: OK. So what does that mean? I mean, what does it mean that this unit would be placed under something called the Office of Financial Education?

ARNOLD: OK. Right. So this student loan office that just got demoted, it's been really active in recent years. So for example, tens of thousands of active military service members were being overcharged for student loans. And the office at the bureau got the Justice Department involved, said - hey, this is a problem. They got $60 million returned to service members. And then they went on and changed industry practices so that this wasn't going to happen anymore to people in the military.

It's also had a hand in lots of other lawsuits and settlements, returned, like you said, a total - I think it's more than $750 million. So again, the worry is that this watchdog is now going to be told - well, why don't you stick to printing out pamphlets and doing financial education stuff?

MARTIN: So has Mick Mulvaney had anything to say about this? I imagine critics have been kind of lambasting him on it.

ARNOLD: Yes, he has. In a statement, his press person says, quote, "this was just a modest organizational chart change" (ph) and that there is, quote, "no formal or even practical change" (ph). Consumer advocates don't really believe that.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Chris Arnold.

Thank you so much for sharing that reporting with us this morning.

ARNOLD: You're welcome.

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