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News Brief: Sri Lanka Attacks, Russian Interference, Kim-Putin Summit


In Sri Lanka, they are burying their dead.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: The voices of mourners at St. Sebastian's Church just north of Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo - men and women singing through tears, standing next to long rows of coffins.


And as the mourning is taking place, there is footage that has now emerged of one of the suspected bombers walking into that church days earlier carrying a large backpack moments before a bomb was detonated.

The death toll from the attacks has risen to 359. And among those dead, a fifth-grade student from Washington, D.C., Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa. His father, Alexander Arrow, spoke in an interview with WJLA about his son.

ALEXANDER ARROW: A brilliant mind who was going to be a neuroscientist. And now he's - he won't make it to his 12th birthday.

GREENE: Sri Lanka's president spoke to the nation yesterday, saying that security officials who had received intelligence from a foreign nation warning of potential attacks did not share that information with him. And he is promising changes.

MARTIN: Michael Sullivan is covering the story for NPR. He is in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, joins us on Skype. Michael, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So security officials didn't share critical information with Sri Lanka's president. That's quite the admission. I mean, what kind - when he says he wants to make change now, what does that mean? What kind of change?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's unclear. I mean, it's quite an admission, yeah. Or it's a bit of deflection, depending on who you believe, since the president is, in theory, the man the security forces report to. So it seems a little odd that he wouldn't know about it, Rachel. A minister from the opposition today said the information was withheld purposefully, that Indian intelligence informed the government of possible attacks back on April 4 and that the government ignored it.

Regardless, President Sirisena said he'll be making changes at the top of the security apparatus soon, replacing key officials, though he didn't say who. And he's going to conduct a thorough investigation to find out what went wrong. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more arrests overnight.

MARTIN: Are we learning anything more about the suspected bombers?

SULLIVAN: A little bit more. Deputy defense minister said today that he had information that one of the bombers studied in Great Britain and did his postgrad work in Australia before returning to settle here in Sri Lanka. But he didn't say where the information came from. The others, nothing yet, though the FBI and some other countries are now here aiding in the investigation. But again, there's been a lot of conflicting statements from government officials since the attack, so a big grain of salt with any of these claims at this point.

MARTIN: Right. So these - among these claims, I mean, the Sri Lankan government is blaming these two domestic Islamist groups. We now have ISIS claiming responsibility, which would explain why these two very small, relatively unknown groups were able to stage such a wide-scale attack. But is there anything else we're learning about how this plot came to be?

SULLIVAN: We don't - yeah. I mean, we saw that Islamic State claim made yesterday. And they did distribute a video online that purportedly shows the man Sri Lankan officials think was the leader of the attackers, implying that he joined forces with them. But there's no hard evidence yet linking the two.

But, you know, think about it, Rachel. You were just saying it - more than half a dozen attacks almost simultaneously, incredibly well-executed. That points to a much bigger and much more well-organized group than these local militants the Sri Lankan government says were behind the attack, though government officials admit the locals probably did have some foreign help. Was it ISIS? It's certainly one of their goals, as they lose territory, to look to wreak havoc elsewhere.

MARTIN: Michael Sullivan reporting from Colombo. Michael, we appreciate it. Thanks.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: Jared Kushner says the investigations into Russian election interference have done more harm to American democracy than the interference itself.

GREENE: Yeah. So the president's son-in-law and close adviser made this remark on stage in New York City at a Time magazine event. Kushner tried to minimize the extent of Russia's activities by focusing on the amount of money that Facebook says Russian agents spent advertising on their site.


JARED KUSHNER: They said they spent about 160,000. I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign. So - now, if you look at the magnitude of what they did and what they accomplished, I think the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful to our country.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks has covered the details of the Russian interference in the 2016 election. And he is here to help fact-check Jared Kushner's characterization. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So is Jared Kushner wrong about that figure - 160,000 - spent by Russians on social media to undermine the election?

PARKS: He's not wrong about the number. We know that Russian operatives spent less than $200,000 on Facebook ads. But that really undersells the broad scope of these election interference efforts. Even just focusing on the social media side of things, we know that Russian operatives started hundreds of fake accounts that were seen by as many as 126 million people on Facebook alone. Outside of that, there was the effort to hack and steal emails from the Democratic Party, as well as the effort to hack into even some U.S. government servers. And Kushner's explanation kind of glosses over all of that stuff.

MARTIN: Right. So let's rewind. When exactly did all this interference begin? Because this predates Donald Trump, doesn't it?

PARKS: Yeah, it does. And this was not a kind of spur-of-the-moment thing. We know that even all the way back in 2014, Russian operatives lied to the State Department to be able to gain visas to go on these, quote, "intelligence-driven missions." According to Robert Mueller's report that came out last week, they were doing this to gain information about the U.S. political climate that they could then use to tailor this hyper-partisan content that they were putting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to try and divide Americans.

MARTIN: So you referenced it earlier that this was far more than just a couple of Facebook ads. But can you give us more detail about how big the operation got?

PARKS: Absolutely. So by September of 2016, which was about two months before the presidential election, we know that the budget for the IRA, the Internet Research Agency, which was the Russian organization in charge of all of this interference - the monthly budget was about $1.25 million. This is not some sort of unorganized criminal enterprise. I think it's more helpful to think of it as a small communications firm. They had an IT department, a data analysis department, a social - excuse me - a search-engine optimization department...

MARTIN: HR? Did they have HR? (Laughter).

PARKS: I'm sure they had a number of different departments that looked more like a small business.


SULLIVAN: And then you - we know that even after the election that that budget was well over a million dollars a month.

MARTIN: So now what? Right? Because we've heard U.S. intelligence officials tell us time and again that Russia hasn't backed down. They haven't stopped doing this stuff.

PARKS: No. They haven't.

MARTIN: So where's the evidence of that?

PARKS: Well, so - and even as recently as this past October, a federal complaint was unsealed where a Russian woman was charged with conspiring to sow this sort of discord in the American political system. The complaint specifically said the conspiracy, quote, "continues to this day."

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Miles Parks for us. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you.


MARTIN: A little more than a year ago, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un had never traveled outside of his country on diplomatic missions.

GREENE: Well, now he's a big-time traveler. After visiting Beijing to meet with China's leaders last March, Kim and his fleet of armored trains have gone to South Korea and Singapore and Vietnam. And now he has arrived in the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Kim is scheduled to meet there with Russia's president, President Vladimir Putin, tomorrow. This is his first trip abroad since a second summit with President Trump in February in Vietnam ended abruptly with no deal.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Tokyo this morning, where he is monitoring all of this. Hey, Anthony. Do we have Anthony?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi. Can you hear me?

MARTIN: Yeah, I can hear you. We got a little delay on the line, but that's cool. So, Anthony, trains. This is a long train trip (laughter). What's Kim Jong Un doing?

KUHN: Actually, it's about a 20-hour train ride from Pyongyang to Vladivostok. For Putin, it's an 8 1/2-hour flight from Moscow, so it's really more in Kim's backyard. But anyways, we've seen pictures of him getting out of his armored train in Vladivostok. And his advance teams were seen there checking out a university, a theater and a naval base. So it's assumed that he's going to meet with Putin on Thursday and then tour the city before he goes back to North Korea on Friday. And he'll have one-on-one talks with Putin before breaking out into larger talks with his staff.

MARTIN: Why is this happening now? This isn't...

KUHN: Well, as you mentioned, he just broke - Kim just broke out of that diplomatic isolation last year. He's the first North Korean leader to visit Russia since his father in 2011. And there's quite a bit of historical symbolism there. Remember that the Soviet Union basically installed Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, as North Korea's leader after World War II. And then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early '90s, that loss of support contributed to a devastating famine in North Korea in the middle of that decade. So they're really reestablishing relations through this visit with their primary patron in the past.

MARTIN: So what does this have to do with the second summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump that was in Hanoi and broke down with no agreement?

KUHN: That's right. And that was a major embarrassment for Kim. He went there believing he could get concessions from Trump, and the fact that he couldn't means either that he personally miscalculated or his frontline negotiators didn't give him an accurate readout of what he could get. So in the remarks he's made since then, Kim has basically indicated that his game plan is like this - he's going to focus on economic self-reliance at home to get through the sanctions. And he's going to give the U.S. a deadline to come up with a better deal by year's end, barring which he could put out of talks - he could pull out of talks.

And his final option is to explore alternatives - plans B and C. China's sort of plan B. Russia's sort of plan C. And North Korea currently does most of its business with China. So this summit really represents Kim's hedge against relying too much on Beijing.

MARTIN: Interesting. NPR's Anthony Kuhn talking with us from Tokyo, where he's monitoring Kim Jong Un's visit to Russia. Anthony, thanks so much.


KUHN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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