Syrian weightlifter Man Asaad (L), Syrian swimmer Baean Jouma (2nd R) and Syrian Women's Table Tennis Heba Allejji (R) stand for their national anthem during a welcoming ceremony at the Olympic Village ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, on August 4.

Syrian weightlifter Man Asaad (L), Syrian swimmer Baean Jouma (2nd R) and Syrian Women's Table Tennis Heba Allejji (R) stand for their national anthem during a welcoming ceremony at the Olympic Village ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, on August 4.

The Obama administration defends a $400 million payment to Iran. President Obama denies it was a ransom payment for prisoners. The U.S. launches airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Libya. President Obama says the Islamic State is turning more to terrorism because it is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian government and rebels trade accusations over allegations of toxic gas attacks. And the Summer Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.

Guests

  • Yochi Dreazen Managing editor, Foreign Policy; author, "The Invisible Front"
  • Carol Lee White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal
  • Uri Friedman Staff writer, The Atlantic, covering global affairs
  • Lulu Garcia-Navarro South America correspondent, NPR

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama says a large cash payment made to Iran was for a decades old legal claim, not a ransom payment. U.S. war planes strike ISIS targets in Libya and the summer Olympic games open tonight in Rio de Janeiro. Joining me for the week's top international news on the Friday News Roundup, Yochi Dreazon of Foreign Policy, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal and Uri Friedman of The Atlantic.

  • 11:07:28

    MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to participate in our conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.

  • 11:07:48

    MR. YOCHI DREAZENThanks, Diane.

  • 11:07:48

    MR. URI FRIEDMANThanks.

  • 11:07:49

    MS. CAROL LEEThank you.

  • 11:07:49

    REHMYochi, the U.S. paid Iran $400 million in January. Why has this become such a big story now?

  • 11:08:01

    DREAZENI think largely because of the brilliant reporter sitting to my left. She and Jay Solomon from The Journal had a very good scoop about the money being airlifted in cash. I think something about that image is why is resonates. President Obama had talked in the past about this so the fact that the money was paid, people know. The fact of what the money was, which I can talk to in a second, was known. But the image of this money being delivered in cash -- not American dollars, but in euros and francs and the timing, it genuinely hard to imagine that it's purely coincidence on the exact same day this money landed that was the exact same day that Americans were freed.

  • 11:08:36

    DREAZENSo the money, people knew what it was. What is was, was the Shah had spent $400 million to buy American F16s. Then, obviously, his government fell and that money was frozen. The U.S. had agreed to give that money back, plus interest, in total, 1.7 billion, which is the original money, 300 million in interest adjusted for inflation. And this was the first 400 million of that 1.7 billion. So the money, it was known it was going back. It was, I think, the image of it and it was the timing because it is just genuinely sort of hard to get past, money goes, people come back, and the White House says there's no connection.

  • 11:09:10

    REHMCarol.

  • 11:09:12

    LEEWell, yeah, and they also say that the 1.7 billion has saved taxpayers money because they would've had to pay out up $10 billion to Iran if they had settled this through the Hague. But what this has done is created a political firestorm in the sense that Republicans have seized on this to, once again, renew, first of all, their criticism of the Iran deal and the president's Iran policy broadly and also to revive claims that this was ransom. And there's going to increasingly be noise from the Congress pressing the administration for additional answers.

  • 11:09:51

    LEEThey still have not said precisely when this money was delivered. They still have not said how they paid out the remaining 1.3 billion, although they've said it has been paid out through a fund that is reserved for settlements such as this. And it complicates the president's efforts to make sure that the Iran deal is cemented before he leaves office because part of what they've been doing is to try to get the international financial system to ease money to go into Iran because the Iranians are claiming that the U.S. and other world powers they secured the nuclear deal with are not living up to their end of the bargain because the money's not flowing fast enough.

  • 11:10:34

    LEEAnd Congress is already nipping at the president's heels on this to try to stop certain transactions and various other financial moves that the White House is trying to make.

  • 11:10:44

    REHMAnd Uri, why is the justice department getting involved here?

  • 11:10:50

    FRIEDMANWell, I think, you know, there's a broader question about was -- I think there's a lot of debate here about was this ransom and I think it's an interesting debate more broadly about the U.S. ransom policy as a whole because this has been a controversial topic. The U.S. says we don't pay ransom because we don't want to encourage people to take Americans hostage. Europeans, however, have been known to pay ransom. And I think one kind of subtext of the debate going on here is this question of ransom payments.

  • 11:11:26

    FRIEDMANIn June, 2015, the Obama administration actually revised its policy to say we will not prosecute families that pay ransoms on their own. They also said we're going to create government kind of fusion units to respond to hostages. So they have been trying to revise their policy, but they still -- really, the red line that I think a lot of government agencies and a lot of critics of the Obama administration are focusing on right now is the U.S. government itself cannot pay ransom and even if this wasn't explicit ransom, was it implicit in the sense that it all happened at the same time?

  • 11:12:04

    REHMWhy was it paid in cash, Carol?

  • 11:12:09

    LEEBecause they needed to get around various sanctions and because Iran -- I mean, what's clear here is that Iran wanted a deliverable up front when all this was coming together and they requested cash and the administration agreed. And it's very hard for the administration -- or for Iran to get access to money because of all sorts of sanctions. And so the U.S. went around and collected euros and francs from various European banks and stacked it all together and flew it in.

  • 11:12:39

    LEEAnd that just enables Iran to have immediate access to money whereas it could've taken months for them to get the payout.

  • 11:12:46

    REHMAnd predictably, Donald Trump got involved in this argument and, at first, said he had seen a video of the plane landing with the money and now he has, on a rare occasion, turned himself around.

  • 11:13:08

    DREAZENYou know, it's fascinating. I know you were talking about this a little bit in the previous hour, but this is one of those weeks where if he had said absolutely nothing, Hillary would've been battered over ties to the Iran deal. She would've been battered over the way she characterized the FBI director's comments about her email, which her characterization was empirically false. But because of Trump, all of that gets blown away. So you have Republicans in the Senate referring to this as Iran contra.

  • 11:13:29

    DREAZENI mean, that phrase is being used again, that this is Obama's Iran contra affair, which is ludicrous, but that's the phrasing being used. If Trump were not picking fights, not talking about videos that clearly do not exist, this would be a bigger story. There would be a Hillary angle to this, too, but there isn't and with Trump, it's to the point where he lies about things that are so easily verifiably lies. You know, he says there was a scheduling issue, the NFL sent him a letter. NFL says, no, there was no letter.

  • 11:13:56

    DREAZENHe's saying I've watched a video. The idea that there'd be a video that he could see of this relatively secretive thing is, of course, ludicrous and he lets it go and then for this particular one, as you say, was unusual in that he walked it back. But you wonder why the lies that are easily verifiable, the falsehoods that you can look at and know are wrong.

  • 11:14:14

    REHMCarol?

  • 11:14:14

    LEEWell, he also waited two days to retract his statement. He said this Wednesday at a rally in Florida and he didn't just say it. He went into detail talking about, you know, going on about there's no paparazzi there and so, you know, we saw this video and they were doing it and he just kept talking about it. And then, it hung out there for two days where everyone was saying, there is no video. And then, today, he tweets and says that he was wrong or correction, Donald Trump doesn't say he was wrong. He said he was referred to a video in Geneva of the Americans being released.

  • 11:14:50

    REHMUri.

  • 11:14:50

    FRIEDMANBut one thing I think about his quick reaction, it speaks to how the Iran deal is very polarizing and everyone has their positions and people are seizing on this story to confirm their positions. So the Democrats say this was part of a, you know, backers of Obama say this is part of a grand bargain. We got a lot of things done. This is an old -- 40-year-old payment that was Iran's money anyway. We are just settling all of the issues that we have with this relationship. And look, the Iran deal is working in many ways a year on.

  • 11:15:17

    FRIEDMANCritics say this is appeasement. This is another example of the Obama administration kind of going out of its way to get Iran money that it could use for nefarious purposes and also bending to all of the Iranian leaders' demands. So we're seeing not just Donald Trump in the video context, but also more broadly, critics and supporters kind of jumping on this to explain why they think the Iran deal was a good thing to do.

  • 11:15:46

    REHMSo Carol, your colleague wrote about this in The Wall Street Journal. What conclusions can we draw or is this simply going to be one of those stories that becomes part of the presidential debate saying, look at what the Obama administration did?

  • 11:16:09

    LEEI think it's definitely going to become part of the presidential debate. The Iran nuclear deal had largely faded into the background. It had not been something that was front and center recently in the presidential election. And this has really revived that. Not only that, but you're seeing various Senate candidates and the Senate is -- obviously, there's a big fight for the Senate -- put using this as a wedge issue against their opponents saying, you know, does -- in Pennsylvania, in Florida, in Colorado, in Nevada and so you're going to increasingly see that.

  • 11:16:40

    LEEYou're going to see the Congress -- they've already called on Secretary Kerry to come and testify. So I think it tells you a lot about how deep they divisions are on this issue and how something like this, which is a new description on something that we knew happened earlier has really kicked up a firestorm.

  • 11:17:01

    REHMYochi?

  • 11:17:02

    DREAZENOne thing about this that's interesting is that the Iran deal is something that's divided the Republican party in some ways -- not as much as it has Republicans to the Democrats, but when Donald Trump spoke to APEC, which had been one of the first times he used a teleprompter, it was him trying to repair kind of frayed ties with the Jewish community, he said of the Iran deal that he would enforce the deal, that he would enforce it better than the White House had said.

  • 11:17:22

    DREAZENWhat he did not say was I'm going to tear the deal up on day one. And you've had Republicans, Tom Cotton, a whole coterie of Republicans in the Senate, especially, say, you know, Ted Cruz, when he was running for office, day one they tear up the deal, day one they tear up the deal. And for trump, it was I'll enforce it better. Of course there are not details, but it's an interesting divide because implicit in that is the deal stands. I won't try to get rid of it. I'll just try to make it stricter.

  • 11:17:43

    REHMYochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy and author of "The Invisible Front." We are going to take your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMWelcome back to the international hour of our Friday News Roundup. This week with Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, Uri Friedman of The Atlantic and Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. Let's talk about President Obama referring to the Islamic state, saying it's losing ground in Iraq and Syria and turning more to terrorism elsewhere. Uri?

  • 11:20:36

    FRIEDMANI think it was an interesting affirmation of something that we're seeing, which is that ISIS has, you know, there's one group called the HIS Conflict Monitor that estimates that ISIS has lost 12 percent of its territory in the last six months, 14 percent in 2015. So as its territory in Iraq and Syria are shrinking, we're seeing more attacks abroad, especially since the fall of 2015.

  • 11:20:59

    FRIEDMANWe saw the Paris attacks, the Brussels attacks. And Obama was saying this is what's gonna be happening. As they lose territory, we're gonna have to fight them more than militarily. We're gonna have to fight them through intelligence and through ideological means as they try to do attacks abroad. And people have different theories for why this is the case.

  • 11:21:19

    FRIEDMANBut I spoke with Robert Pape, who's a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago, who argues this is about dynamic losses of territory. When terrorist groups or groups in general lose territory and they're fighting in a pitched way for that territory, they tend to resort to suicide terrorism. Others say this is a way to demonstrate we're still powerful.

  • 11:21:37

    REHMOf course. Carol?

  • 11:21:38

    LEEWell, I think while that's the White House's argument, and it may be true and it's rational and it makes sense, the problem for the president is that what scares people is -- are these kinds of attacks that you've been seeing. And he had not figured out a way to communicate why that's happening in a way that really resonates with people and calms their fears.

  • 11:21:59

    LEEAnd, you know, if you talk to folks in the White House privately, they'll say this is just the new normal. But that's not something that they can say publically. And so the perception is that the president's policy is not working, even if militarily it's working in the sense that they're shrinking the amount of territory that the Islamic state has overseas. It's just not what people are feeling and seeing.

  • 11:22:22

    REHMYochi?

  • 11:22:23

    DREAZENYeah, I completely agree. I mean, I think what's happened in some ways is ISIS has morphed from a physical group in a physical place to an idea. When ISIS had territory, they were encouraging people and they -- we don't often enough listen to what a group says about itself. We too often listen to what U.S. officials say about that group or what outside experts say about that group. But listening to what they say about themselves is fascinating.

  • 11:22:42

    DREAZENAnd six months ago it was, brothers, if you know how to be electrical engineers or sewage engineers, come to the caliphate 'cause we need you. Now it's, we may lose Mosul, we may lose Raqqah. So brothers, stay where you are and carry out attacks. And that shift is utterly fundamental and fascinating. Because, you know, Uri mentioned some of the territorial estimates, some of them go as high as 47 percent. That they've lost half of what they held in Iraq and Syria.

  • 11:23:04

    DREAZENThe fight for Raqqah will start soon. The fight for Cert in Libya has already started. The fight for Mosul will start soon. So it's very possible that in six months the three biggest cities they had will be no longer held by ISIS. At the same time, it's just as possible that in three months you'll see not only attacks then, but attacks now. We know they have cells in Germany. We know they have cells in France. We know they're trying to get people to Britain.

  • 11:23:25

    DREAZENWe know that they have people -- not that they've sent to the U.S., but who are sympathetic, who have radicalized on their own because ISIS is an idea. And ISIS, there was an interesting article in The New York Times about an ISIS intelligent network. And part of what jumped out at me was at the very end of the article they said the U.S. is a great place to carry out attacks because it's so easy to get guns. So this was ISIS itself talking about the U.S. and saying just -- you can get a gun easily. So the U.S. is easy. It's an easy target.

  • 11:23:51

    REHMSo what about the U.S. escalating the war with airstrikes in Libya, Carol?

  • 11:23:58

    LEEYeah, this is something that we've been expecting for some time. And, you know, the president said this week that these were -- airstrikes were requested, the U.S. is coming in to assist. He also indicated that this is not gonna slow down any time soon and, if anything, would ramp up. The thing I found interesting about the president's press conference yesterday is that he was -- here's a man who is standing in the Pentagon five months before he's about to leave office, and when he came in he promised to be the president who would end all these wars.

  • 11:24:29

    LEEAnd he just went through one conflict after the other. You know, he's talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, two places he promised to get out of. New fronts in Syria, new fronts in Libya. And so it's a remarkable turnaround from where he was and what he was saying when he came into office. And a huge disappointment, I think, to him that this is the situation that he's having to oversee as he leaves. And this will be his legacy.

  • 11:24:56

    REHMAnd now you have a Washington Metro officer arrested for attempting to aid ISIS, Uri.

  • 11:25:05

    FRIEDMANYes. What they found here was that he was -- one, they've been tracking him for years. And he had been making threats against FBI officials saying -- he even claimed that he had gone twice to Libya in 2011 to fight against Gaddafi. He also kind of praised certain terrorist attacks. But the thing that made it into a decision to arrest him was buying kind of almost gift cards. $250 worth of gift cards for mobile messaging technology that ISIS often uses to communicate with people.

  • 11:25:39

    FRIEDMANAnd he bought that actually from an undercover agent. And as a result they detained him. He's actually the first U.S. law enforcement officer to be charged with aiding or trying to aid a terrorist group.

  • 11:25:49

    REHMI gather the FBI had been watching him for several years.

  • 11:25:54

    FRIEDMANYes, they had been. They had been. There were concerns. And so that is kind of creating a question among some, you know, critics observing this, saying, well, you know, how is he still, you know, if you're watching him, how is he still, like, gonna be a transit officer…

  • 11:26:06

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:26:07

    FRIEDMAN…and doing his job all the time? But I think they were waiting for something to really be able to act on and this was it.

  • 11:26:11

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones here. We have a caller in Winter Haven, Fla. Larry, you're on the air.

  • 11:26:22

    LARRYHi, how are you, Diane?

  • 11:26:23

    REHMGood, thanks.

  • 11:26:24

    LARRYThanks for taking my call.

  • 11:26:26

    REHMSure.

  • 11:26:28

    LARRYDiane, I had a question and a concern. I'm a former police -- I'm a retired police officer and I'm a former military, Army volunteer from back in the '70s. I have for military children, two who are still currently active after 18 years each. I have concerns that -- about -- my thought was that when I was a police officer, prior to taking the very serious position, I was -- it was mandated that I took a psychological evaluation.

  • 11:27:02

    LARRYAnd if you didn't pass that psychological evaluation you could not conduct work and the -- doing the responsibilities of the law enforcement officer. In the highest office of the land, president of the United States, is there any type of protocol concerning psychological evaluations or considerations as such, thinking about all the ways of -- a presidential candidate, such as Donald Trump.

  • 11:27:33

    REHMYochi?

  • 11:27:35

    DREAZENNo, there isn't. What you're beginning to hear though, and it's coming from frankly Republicans, as well as Democrats, is a serious, not glib, conversation about is something mentally wrong with Donald Trump. So it's easy to take pot-shots six months ago, but now it's becoming a serious topic of is there dementia, is there…

  • 11:27:52

    REHMWhy? Why is that becoming a topic?

  • 11:27:54

    DREAZENI think because the severity with which he responds to people, the kind of ferocity and his inability to let anything go, combined much more substantively with the fact that he says again and again and again things that are just flat-out lies. We're beyond the stage of being able to say they're falsehoods or use softer language. They're lies. They're just things that are untrue. And then the question is does he know them to be untrue when he says them or does he not know them to be untrue.

  • 11:28:18

    DREAZENAnd if he doesn't know them to be untrue that's -- you can get into an argument of which is scarier. A president who has perhaps dementia and doesn't know that what he's saying is false or a president who does know and just figures out that his supporters don't care and just says them over and over and over again. But I'm not saying this lightly, because this has becoming a serious topic discussed by both parties, that there may in a very literal medical sense be something wrong with Donald Trump.

  • 11:28:39

    REHMCarol?

  • 11:28:40

    LEEYeah, this is something that we're -- we haven't seen before in a presidential election. You know, usually you just -- these are not questions that have come up in recent cycles. And -- but when you have a candidate who says things like this week Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton was behind the $400 million -- he linked her to the $400 million payment. And she had been gone as secretary of state for several years. And then he says it seems like every week there -- or every couple days there's something.

  • 11:29:12

    LEEYou know, candidates typically release their health records. Whether or not that would include some sort of mental health evaluation, you know, is unclear. And Donald Trump's not releasing his tax return, so who knows if he'll release his health records. But this is a very unusual situation.

  • 11:29:30

    REHMHere's something from Linda, in Mount Lebanon, who is a psychiatric nurse. She says, "Since political candidates do not submit to psychiatric examination, the voters have to make educated guesses." She goes on to say, "Over the past year Donald Trump has exhibited increasing mood behavior and cognitive deterioration." Have you all seen that?

  • 11:30:11

    DREAZENI mean, I think that there's been an increase in the frequency with which he says things that are untrue. And I think there is -- there has been a difference in the way in which he responds to people. He now -- you know, referred to Hillary Clinton first as the devil. And then when he backed away from the devil, he said comparatively all she did was be -- help birth ISIS. So by comparison to being the, you know, Lucifer, that's probably a step up for Hillary.

  • 11:30:31

    DREAZENBut you saw it in his attacks on the Khan family. I mean his tweet was, "They've attacked me. How can I not respond?" You don't normally hear a presidential candidate figure that they have to respond to literally everything that's said to them or about them. That's change, but the frequency with which he's saying things that are false has gotten larger, faster, bigger almost by the day.

  • 11:30:52

    REHMUri?

  • 11:30:53

    FRIEDMANI think, you know, one thing that I've noticed is that there's been, I think, more media and public discussion of these questions recently. Only in the last few weeks. I think one kind of turning point was at the Democratic convention when Michael Bloomberg stood up and at the end of his speech he said, "Let's elect a sane, competent person." And I think that that kind of public full-throated argument for electing one candidate and not another kind of created a situation in which it became more of an open discussion.

  • 11:31:20

    FRIEDMANI will say that, you know, there is a tendency here to conflate a question about his mental health and -- with questions about his policy ideas. And I think that can sometimes be distracting in a way. You know, I think until recently there was a lot of discussion of these are good or bad policy ideas. Now, it's become more a question of mental health. But there are also real policy issues that he's been voicing that need to be debated, whether you agree with them or not.

  • 11:31:45

    LEEWell, to add to that, the Democrats love this conversation. This is their core argument. And they're feeling it. If anything, you know, the -- Hillary Clinton's main calling card this -- from now until November is that he's unstable, he's irrational and to the extent that you can create a narrative in politics and the person you're creating the narrative about can play into the narrative, it just makes it more effective.

  • 11:32:15

    REHMHave you been up close with Donald Trump?

  • 11:32:20

    LEEI've -- I covered a couple of his rallies in New Hampshire. So it was rather early on. And, you know, he's -- I have not been out on the campaign trail with him since, but I will say that his supporters are his supporters. He's not losing his core supporters with any of this. He has really strong, dedicated support.

  • 11:32:44

    REHMAnd certainly the money he's raised in the last week would indicate exactly that. I just find this a fascinating examination from afar, which is what everybody's doing, Yochi.

  • 11:33:03

    DREAZENYeah, I mean, we've never -- and we've known this now and we -- it's become a talking point, but never in the history of the United States, surely in the modern history has there been anything like Donald Trump. From how he raises money -- and as he said, he raised $80 million last month. So he has enormous success. To how he does press conferences, to how he discards -- throws down an idea, takes it back, says something else that contradicts it the next day. The personal nature of how he speaks about his opponents, we just haven't seen it before. And it's unique and it's changing this election in fundamental ways.

  • 11:33:29

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a caller from Indianapolis. Chris, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:41

    CHRISThanks, Diane. Great show, great show.

  • 11:33:43

    REHMThanks.

  • 11:33:46

    CHRISIt seems this first announcement of this deal President Obama to lift the sanctions with Iran and free up the nuclear program didn't include the release of any hostages. And now -- we're hearing now that $400 million was laundered through European currency to secure their release. Is that true?

  • 11:34:11

    REHMCarol?

  • 11:34:14

    LEEWell, yeah, after the U.S. and other world powers reached the Iran nuclear deal they went into a series of separate discussions on various things, including Americans who have been detained in Iran and this settlement of an arms agreement that was prior to 1979, which is…

  • 11:34:33

    REHMExcuse me. I thought that two different groups…

  • 11:34:37

    LEEThey were, right.

  • 11:34:37

    REHM…talked about first the $400 million and then the hostages.

  • 11:34:43

    LEEThey were separate, right. That's correct.

  • 11:34:45

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:34:45

    LEEThey were separate. Separate discussions. All of which came together, according to the administration, coincidentally in January. So there wasn't this -- they were -- there was first the Iran -- the nuclear agreement and what happened in January, that weekend of the January 16th was implementation day, as they call it, where Iran had abided by its side of the agreement and the -- it went into effect. And the release of these Americans and the $1.7 billion settlement announcement and now we know a $400 million cash payment to Iran. So that's the sequencing.

  • 11:35:21

    DREAZENI mean, I think the word he used, what was laundered, which is an interesting word. I mean, I understand why this is resonant. I understand why the idea that money was air-lifted and pallets of cash that weren't U.S. dollars, it does have a tinge of just something unseemly. But, you know, as Carol explained earlier it was we simply couldn't transfer the money electronically. And you can't use U.S. dollars. But laundered is I think the wrong word.

  • 11:35:40

    REHMAll right. To San Antonio, Texas. Another question from Al. You're on the air.

  • 11:35:48

    ALLast night on TV, the pastor who was released as part of the hostage program, commented that he was taken -- they -- the hostages were taken to the airport and they were told they were gonna leave in 20 minutes. And they sat there for several hours. And he kept asking why aren't we leaving. And the answer was we're waiting for the other plane. And when the plane with the cash landed, then they took off. Now, if that's not hostage money what is -- how can Obama say it's not?

  • 11:36:19

    REHMUri?

  • 11:36:19

    FRIEDMANMy sense of what happened there is he did go on and talk about the delays in leaving. I think what hasn't totally been confirmed yet is did he actually -- did anyone see an actual plane come in with money, which I don't think has been confirmed. And that matters because the sequencing kind of matters. If a plane came with cash before hostages were released it would suggest more strongly than is currently the case that it -- there was some quid pro quo.

  • 11:36:45

    FRIEDMANI think one challenge here about this debate over ransom is that all of this happened at once. And so to try to disentangle these various threads and connect one thing to the other is very hard. And so it becomes a more ambiguous debate about what constitutes ransom.

  • 11:37:01

    REHMCarol?

  • 11:37:01

    LEEYeah, the administration has pushed back on the pastor's retelling of events, although they won't say exactly what is incorrect. And in leaving this space where they're not answering questions about the sequencing and the timing, you just lead people to draw their own conclusions and it continues the story.

  • 11:37:20

    REHMCarol Lee is White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Short break here. When we come back about -- we'll talk about Syrian government and rebels trading accusations. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our Friday news roundup. This week, Syrian government and rebels traded accusations over alleged gas attacks. What do we know, Yochi?

  • 11:40:20

    DREAZENSo one of them, which is in some ways I think the more interesting of the two, you had a Russian military helicopter, Russia as we know has been a sort of de facto air force, helping Assad as his ground troops encircle Aleppo and make other pushes into rebel-held territory, a Russian helicopter was shot down. Russia lost five troops. It was for them the biggest single loss of life they've had since they started the intervention.

  • 11:40:40

    DREAZENThe next day you had reports begin to emerge that there were -- there were signs of chlorine gas, chlorine attacks that had been -- this had been the weapon of choice, frankly, of the Assad forces now for more than a year. The deal that Assad struck, with Russian help with the White House, to avert U.S. airstrikes was not to use chemical weapons and to turn over its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

  • 11:41:01

    DREAZENChlorine gas technically is not part of that deal, and Assad has been using it ever since. And when you look at...

  • 11:41:05

    REHMWhy is chlorine gas not part of that deal?

  • 11:41:08

    DREAZENBecause it's dual-use. Because we -- we think of chlorine, we think of chlorine in a swimming pool or as a disinfectant. It's easy to turn into a weapon. So it isn't covered. But when you look at the video and the photos of what happens if you take in chlorine gas, it's horrific. It's burns, it's suffocation. So the damage, whether it is or is not technically chemical weapon, fundamentally it is.

  • 11:41:27

    DREAZENSo you had the sequence, the Russian helicopter shot down, the next day reports of people suffering from chemical weapon -- from chlorine inhalation in that same area. Then separately you had, in Aleppo, where right now the government has basically circled the city, you have -- you had rebels still holding on to parts of the city but being shelled on all sides. There the report appears to be that the rebels were the ones who may have used a shell that had some form of chlorine or other chemical agents inside of it.

  • 11:41:52

    REHMAnd what about Russia? Totally denying any responsibility, Uri?

  • 11:41:59

    FRIEDMANYes, Russia has denied any responsibility for the alleged chlorine attack. So has the Assad government, which is often suspected in these cases because the chlorine canisters came from the air. The Assad regime has an air force, the rebels don't. But Russia's denials, as the U.S. looks into it, does also kind of speak to this moment in Syria where all this is occurring while the Assad regime is pummeling Aleppo, the city of Aleppo, which is divided right now.

  • 11:42:24

    FRIEDMANThe idea of a ceasefire, which was fragilely in place a while ago, is just in tatters right now. Negotiations are stalled, and Russia and the U.S. are trading accusations about who's doing more damage in Syria. So we're really seeing a moment where things have gone very downhill in terms of finding a resolution.

  • 11:42:41

    REHMAnd what did the president have to say about this yesterday, Carol?

  • 11:42:47

    LEEHe said that Syria is one of the main reasons why he has so much gray hair, and he -- he's very frustrated with this, and this is -- this happening now points to a number of frustrations that the White House is having with its Syria policy generally but also with Russia. They've tried again and again to get some sort of agreement with Russia, and they're just -- Russia's not living up to their end of the deal.

  • 11:43:13

    LEEThis president said yesterday that this ceasefire is barely holding on. They want to try to cut a new deal with Russia, and, you know, what you keep hearing from the president is largely the same thing, that Russia will have to prove that it's, you know, a legitimate actor on the world stage and that this will -- and how they respond to this latest offer of some sort of deal with determine that. But he's been saying that for almost a year, since Russia went into Syria.

  • 11:43:42

    REHMWhat do you think, Yochi?

  • 11:43:45

    DREAZENI think the White House, what they're locked in by is that they have no Plan B. They've had Plan A. Plan A has been diplomatic solution. They've spoken about that again and again. Then there was like Plan A, Subparagraph A, which was work with the Russians so that airstrikes are coordinated against ISIS. Russia has ignored that and bombed groups that were directly armed, funded and trained by the U.S. But there is no Plan B. Obama does not want to set up a no-fly zone, he clearly does not want to send in U.S. troops in any significant number, he doesn't want to arm rebels.

  • 11:44:12

    DREAZENSo you've -- if you're him, you've boxed yourself in so tightly that you can be frustrated, but this is a box you made for yourself.

  • 11:44:17

    REHMAll right, let's turn now to what's happening in Brazil, and joining us from South America is NPR correspondent Lulu Garcia-Navarro. How are you, Lulu?

  • 11:44:35

    MS. LULU GARCIA-NAVARROVery busy, as you can imagine.

  • 11:44:38

    REHMI can imagine. Describe for us what Rio is like as the Olympics are about to get underway.

  • 11:44:48

    GARCIA-NAVARROWell, it's an extraordinary moment, I think, for Brazil. On the one hand there is a sense of palpable excitement. They've been building towards this moment for so long. The city of Rio de Janeiro is being showcased to the world, and there is a lot to love here, the scenery, the people. I think the show tonight will be spectacular, according to so many of the people who are involved that I've spoken with.

  • 11:45:11

    GARCIA-NAVARROOn the other hand, I'm sure you know that it's been a very bumpy ride so far, and there have been a lot of problems in the run-up to the games, there are protests taking place right now, and, you know, we are seeing people who are very concerned about the message that is being sent to the world. This is a country that's going through an enormous crisis, economic crisis, and many people feel that this isn't the moment to be having an expensive Olympic Games.

  • 11:45:40

    REHMSo who are these people who are protesting, and at this late date, I mean, it would seem obviously that the Olympics are going to go on.

  • 11:45:56

    GARCIA-NAVARROYes, I don't think that anyone is under any misapprehension that they can stop the games, but I think what they want to do is take the opportunity to air their grievances, which are many. First of all, as I mentioned, you have this political drama playing out. The former -- rather the suspended president, the elected president, Dilma Rousseff, is basically facing trial in the Senate, impeachment trial. And then you have the interim president, Michel Temer, who will open the games this evening, and he is someone who is seen as illegitimate by many people in this country.

  • 11:46:31

    GARCIA-NAVARROWe are expecting, for example, people in the stands to boo him when he officially opens the games tonight. And so we are seeing, you know, a lot of controversy around these games, simply because of the moment that Brazil is living. You know, in 2009 there was -- when Brazil was awarded the games, this was a moment of great hope. It was a moment when the economy was growing. You know, fast-forward to 2016, and we're facing a historic recession and this political drama that has really, really affected the country.

  • 11:47:00

    REHMAnd now I gather there are concerns about terrorism. The Washington Post reported some Brazilians are staying at home because they fear a terrorist attack.

  • 11:47:16

    GARCIA-NAVARROAbsolutely. I mean, this is a country that has not had to deal with terrorism in the way that Europe and the United States has had to deal with it. Part of its foreign policy has always been non-interventionist, it doesn't get involved in foreign adventures, as it calls them. And so that has protected it in large degree from a lot of the forces that we are seeing in the world at large, you know.

  • 11:47:39

    GARCIA-NAVARROUnfortunately because they are hosting the Olympics, that has meant that they have had to deal with terrorism, and a lot of people feel that they are not ready for that challenge. If you think that it was only a few months ago that they passed their first anti-terrorism law, they didn't even have terrorism defined legally here. So many people feel that possibly if there is an attempt on the games, the Brazilians would not be ready to face it.

  • 11:48:09

    GARCIA-NAVARROAnd there has been -- you know, there have been a lot of criticisms about the security so far, people saying that they've been able to walk into venues without having their badges checked. You know, so it does raise a lot of questions.

  • 11:48:19

    REHMI should say. Uri, you've got a question for Lulu.

  • 11:48:24

    FRIEDMANYeah, I'm just wondering what you're seeing in terms of security there as a result of this threat of terrorism because I know that, you know, the state of Rio had to declare a state of calamity, almost effectively saying it was bankrupt, and so because of that they had -- didn't have money to pay for security to the degree they wanted to, to health care and other public services. Are you seeing that effect on the ground or hearing about reports about the lack of security or lack of public funding being an issue.

  • 11:48:52

    GARCIA-NAVARROWell, certainly in the run-up to the games, that was an enormous issue. We saw crime spike here, you know, murders up 15 percent, robberies up 40 percent. Now what we're seeing, however, is a flood of security forces into the city of Rio. It feels like a military camp, honestly. You know, there's no -- you go everywhere, and you just see tanks on the streets and people, you know -- rather soldiers, you know, armed to the teeth.

  • 11:49:15

    GARCIA-NAVARROI was just yesterday at, you know, the Olympic torch relay, and it was incredible. There were just so -- so many security forces, riot police protecting the torch because there have been protests but also because they are worried that something may happen. So there is a lot of security here on the ground, but the question is, as we know with terrorism, a lot of it has to do with intelligence. A lot of it has to do with trying to prevent something before it happens. And so that is the big question here.

  • 11:49:43

    REHMCarol Lee?

  • 11:49:46

    LEEYeah, I'm curious, this -- the Olympics are usually this time of pride and excitement, and everyone kind of comes together, and it's a good sporting, and you have, like, sewage and Zika and violence, and so is it possible -- do you get the sense that there -- that will wind up, once it all comes together, that will wind up fading into the background, and we will see what we typically see with these games?

  • 11:50:14

    GARCIA-NAVARROI think it'll definitely fade somewhat into the background, if there isn't some sort of catastrophe and attack or some other problem, because after all this is something that not only showcases the country, but it is about the athletes themselves, and naturally the drama will move into the arenas, and I think that that's a natural progression.

  • 11:50:34

    GARCIA-NAVARROI also think, though, that there's the wider question that is hanging over these Olympics and not only these Olympics but mega-events generally, the World Cup, as well, after all the corruption scandals, which is are these games actually beneficial for the countries that host them, are these types of events really events that benefit the people here. And that has been a debate central to Brazil in particular because it is such an unequal country.

  • 11:51:00

    GARCIA-NAVARROYou have the city of Rio de Janeiro, 25 percent live in favelas, shantytowns. Many don't have access to sanitation. And so when you see these gleaming new structures, many people ask themselves, what is in it for us. And I think that that is a very pertinent question.

  • 11:51:15

    REHMYochi?

  • 11:51:16

    DREAZENYou know, I'm just curious, sort of your gut feeling, being on the ground. Does it feel as chaotic and poorly planned as it does to us sitting here? I mean, do you get the sense that infrastructure isn't there and that there's sewage floating in the water? Just your gut since you're there because we're all sitting in a studio wondering it.

  • 11:51:31

    GARCIA-NAVARROSure. I think it does. I think a lot of the veteran reporters, the reporters that have lived here for many years and have been covering these issues day in and day out, we thought they'd get it together better. We thought -- you know, we've been reporting on these issues, but when the day came, and the curtain was raised, somehow it was all going to come together.

  • 11:51:51

    GARCIA-NAVARROAnd unfortunately that really hasn't been the case. It is extremely chaotic. And a lot of that has to do with the financial situation. They just don't have the money to pay for basic things. They've had to get an emergency loan from the federal government just to put on the opening and closing ceremonies. They budget of those ceremonies has been slashed almost by 50 percent.

  • 11:52:13

    GARCIA-NAVARROSo, you know, things are very last-minute, things are very ad hoc, and you can feel it here on the ground. Now will everything be okay on the day? Will people be able to enjoy these Olympics? I think so. But it has been extremely chaotic.

  • 11:52:26

    REHMWe've been hearing about lots of broken promises, though, that the Olympics have not led to cleaner streets and less polluted bays, and even the rooms in which these athletes were supposed to be housed are less than what they expected.

  • 11:52:51

    GARCIA-NAVARROI know, and I think that that was really when everyone started to think maybe the wheels were coming off slightly because this Olympic Village, where the athletes are staying, this was sort of a showcase of how these modern Olympics were going to be put together. It was a village that was paid for by private money. The apartments afterwards are going to be sold off as luxury housing. And so the idea was that no public spending was going to be involved in housing of these athletes, and they were going to have the very best.

  • 11:53:24

    GARCIA-NAVARROAnd when the athletes showed up, you know, that was not what they found. They found a place that in some cases didn't have plumbing, had problems with electricity and basically hadn't been cleaned for what looked like weeks or months. So it has raised a lot of questions about how Olympics were managed and specifically how Rio de Janeiro has put this all together.

  • 11:53:45

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:53:49

    DREAZENYeah, I just wonder, you know, we were talking about before we turned to this, do you get the sense that this might actually be a watershed, I mean, since for the Winter Olympics next time, you had Azerbaijan and Beijing being the only cities that bid? Do you kind of get the sense that this might be the last time a relatively impoverished developing city even tries to get the games?

  • 11:54:06

    GARCIA-NAVARROI think that would be an unfortunate -- the unfortunate sort of legacy of these games if that were the case because I don't think it's about impoverished. I don't necessarily think it's about struggling economies. You know, it is, I think, a broader question. If you look, and you see Boston also didn't want to bid on the games, and that's in North America, a fairly prosperous city.

  • 11:54:29

    GARCIA-NAVARROYou know, there are certainly economies that are better equipped to deal with the burdens placed on the cities when the Olympics come to town, but, you know, I think that certainly there is a broader question here for both wealthy and poor nations and the citizens that live in these cities. And I think that yes, this debate has now sort of gone beyond simply Brazil, and it has gone -- and a lot of the discussion that I see are about, you know, the Olympics themselves.

  • 11:54:54

    REHMAnd indeed hasn't every single city that's hosted the Olympics come out on the losing end, Uri?

  • 11:55:05

    FRIEDMANYeah, there were actually two economists that came out with a paper this year that said with the exception of Los Angeles in 1984 and Barcelona in 1992, almost every city has lost money, that the idea that you get big tourism boost, a big economic boost, are actually exceptional and illusory. It's not actually the case. And so most people lose out in the short term and in the long term.

  • 11:55:24

    REHMBut Lulu, one final question for you. Do the people, the visitors, the participants, at least seem to be enjoying themselves?

  • 11:55:37

    GARCIA-NAVARROYes, yes, I mean, this is such a beautiful city. If you've never been here, it is just one of the most beautiful cities in the world. You know, you have the sea, green mountains tumbling down into it. You know, the people are warm and vibrant, the culture is incredible, and so yes, yes, people are enjoying themselves despite all the many, many problems.

  • 11:55:56

    REHMLulu Garcia-Navarro, she is our NPR South American correspondent for NPR. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • 11:56:08

    GARCIA-NAVARROYou're welcome.

  • 11:56:12

    REHMAnd I must say we've got lots of emails, phone calls up here about that $400 million and its transfer. So I gather this is going to be an ongoing debate, Yochi.

  • 11:56:29

    DREAZENI mean, I think it has sort of everything that makes a story have legs. It's got cash, it's got planes, it's got hostages being released, it's got this overhang of a very controversial deal, it has nuclear weapons.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMIt takes you back to the Carter and Reagan transfer, doesn't it?

  • 11:56:43

    DREAZENI mean it does and in a very literal sense because this dates all the way back to 1981, to the fallout from the Iran hostage -- when they took the embassy and the fall of the shah. So in a very literal way it dates back to 1981.

  • 11:56:56

    REHMAll right, we'll leave it at that, Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy, Carol Lee, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic covering global affairs. Have a great weekend, everybody.

  • 11:57:15

    LEEYou, too.

  • 11:57:15

    DREAZENThanks, Diane, you, too.

  • 11:57:16

    FRIEDMANThank you.

  • 11:57:17

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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