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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A presidential address from the Oval Office, delivered in prime time, is a rare event and because of that carries added weight.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, it happened last night. President Biden delivered only the second such address of his presidency, explaining what America has at stake as Israel and Ukraine defend themselves.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You know, history has taught us that when terrorists don't pay a price for their terror, when dictators don't pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction.

MARTÍNEZ: Today, Biden will formally ask Congress to fund ongoing support to both countries.

MARTIN: NPR Senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So tell us - just start by telling us why President Biden decided to give this speech now and what he was trying to accomplish with it.

KEITH: He is just back from Israel, and he wanted to update people on his experience there and tell Americans why they should care about these conflicts happening in faraway lands. And this comes at a critical time. Israel is ramping up for what could be a lengthy military campaign to take out Hamas. Emotions are raw, and in Congress, support for Israel is strong. But the war in Ukraine has been going on for nearly two years, and fatigue has set in. Biden has been struggling for months to get Congress to pass an aid package for Ukraine, and the funding to keep sending them weapons is now running out. So the president sought to link Israel and Ukraine together in people's minds.

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BIDEN: Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common. They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy, completely annihilate it.

KEITH: Republicans are more uniformly in favor of supporting Israel than Democrats are. Meanwhile, Democrats are more in favor of supporting Ukraine than Republicans. And the reasons are multifold. But what Biden is saying here is that both of these countries need the United States, and it's in America's interest for them to succeed so that countries like China and Iran don't get any ideas.

MARTIN: The president seemed to make a point to talk about antisemitism and Islamophobia. Would you just say more about why that was important as part of the speech?

KEITH: What's happening in the Middle East has stirred up a lot of pain and distrust and frankly, like, some real ugliness here at home. And Biden talked about a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois who was murdered in what is being charged as a hate crime.

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BIDEN: His name was Wadea - Wadea, a proud American.

KEITH: And after the speech, Biden called and spoke with members of his family.

MARTIN: I want to go back to the military assistance that Biden wants to supply to Ukraine and now Israel. What kind of support is Biden talking about?

KEITH: Well, the main thing in both cases is supplying weapons. And Biden made an argument last night that giving weapons to these allies isn't pure charity. It allows the U.S. to update its stockpile and supports jobs at defense manufacturers in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas. And Biden was clear that American troops are not fighting this - these wars. This is an investment, he said, to avoid the U.S. getting drawn into a wider conflict.

MARTIN: And we said that the president plans to ask Congress for a new funding package. How much money are we talking about here?

KEITH: The numbers are going to be large. Biden said the assistance for Israel he's requesting is unprecedented, and the reason the White House is going big is because it is increasingly becoming clear that they may not get another bite at the apple in the next year. That's because of the political instability in the House of Representatives, the ongoing lack of a speaker and the rising GOP opposition to government spending, especially overseas, and the fact that next year is an election year, which makes everything just that much more messy.

MARTIN: That's NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: The Russian government has detained an American citizen who worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

MARTÍNEZ: State Department spokesman Matt Miller says the U.S. government has not yet officially been notified about the arrest.

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MATTHEW MILLER: This appears to be another case of the Russian government harassing U.S. citizens, which is why we continue to have a Level 4 travel warning and encourage all U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia for any reason.

MARTÍNEZ: Alsu Kurmasheva is now the second American journalist in Russian custody. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been jailed more than six months while he awaits trial on espionage charges, charges the Journal denies.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Riga in neighboring Latvia and is following this latest case. And we've called him to ask him about it. Good morning, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So tell us more about this latest journalist to be detained.

REEVES: Well, she's an editor with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by Congress and whose mission is to promote democratic values and a free press, particularly in areas where these are threatened. She's a dual citizen of the U.S. and Russia. She's also a mom with a husband and two kids. She lives in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Her employers say that she covers ethnic minorities in the Russian republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, and in fact, she was in Tatarstan's capital city Kazan when she was detained.

MARTIN: So what do the Russian authorities accuse her of doing?

REEVES: Well, her employers say that she traveled to Russia in May because of a family emergency. And they say when she tried to leave soon after that, she was stopped at the airport and accused of failing to register her U.S. passport. Her passports were confiscated, and she'd been waiting for that issue to be resolved. And now the Russians have detained her on this other charge, that of failing to register as a foreign agent. Now, this is under a law which the authorities can label organizations and individuals as foreign agents if they receive funding from overseas and are engaged in political activities. And here in Latvia, there are hundreds of independent Russian journalists who've moved here since the invasion of Ukraine because they can't operate safely or freely in Russia. I've spoken to a number of them, and they say many of them have been labelled foreign agents. And they say this law is a tool that Russia uses increasingly to intimidate its critics and silence the free media and civil society.

MARTIN: And what about - have we heard from Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe? Have they responded to this event?

REEVES: Yes, indeed. I mean, her employers are calling for her to be released immediately and to be allowed to go home. That same call is coming from the Committee to Protect Journalists. It's expressing deep concern. It says these criminal charges are spurious and are more proof that Russia is determined to stifle independent reporting. In fact, there's alarm and dismay over this coming from many quarters.

MARTIN: And obviously, you know, Brittney Griner, the basketball star, is not a journalist. But there's certainly echoes of that here. If this journalist is convicted, what could happen to her?

REEVES: Well, this charge carries a variety of different potential penalties, the maximum of which is a prison sentence of five years. Russia has been accused of detaining Americans to use them as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States. You mentioned the case of Brittney Griner. She was released in December after President Biden negotiated a prisoner swap with Vladimir Putin. Obviously, Kurmasheva's employers and family will be hoping things don't reach that stage.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Riga. Philip, thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: A far-right campaign is pushing states to pull out of a tool that catches voter fraud, and now those states are scrambling for new ways to do the same work.

MARTÍNEZ: Earlier this year, NPR investigated how misinformation was driving Republican-led states to withdraw from a bipartisan group known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.

MARTIN: NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks led that investigation, and he's been following efforts on the right to essentially recreate ERIC. And he's here with us now in the studio to tell us more about it. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: OK, so nine states have now withdrawn from this ERIC group. Would you just start by explaining what it is and why it's important?

PARKS: Sure. So ERIC is a unique partnership that allows state governments to share government data, all in effort to catch voter fraud and keep voting lists up to date. Keeping voting lists up to date makes voting easier for people. It also increases election security. So earlier this year, lies about the system started going viral on conservative media, leading to this pressure on Republican election officials to pull their states out. But the thing is, these states still want to be able to find when somebody votes in more than one state. They still want to be able to use postal service information, for instance, to know if somebody changed addresses. Josh Daniels, who's a former Republican county clerk in Utah, told me that that's led to this sort of mad dash to recreate what ERIC was providing to these states.

JOSH DANIELS: These states have decided that instead of using a wheel, they're instead going to invent a spherical device that will allow them to easily transport items from A to B.

PARKS: But it is important to note that ERIC took years and millions of dollars to develop.

MARTIN: So, you know, Daniels sounds skeptical...

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That this effort to recreate it is actually, you know, possible. What do we know about these efforts?

PARKS: So rather than a single hub for all of this data, what we're seeing is a bunch of individual partnerships to share this data 1 to 1. A number of Republican secretaries have announced these sort of partnerships in recent weeks, but with a couple key differences to ERIC. The biggest one, experts say, is that when you look at these agreements, the states don't actually seem to be sharing enough data to create reliable reports.

MARTIN: So can you say more about that? I mean, if they're sharing voting data, why can't they share what they were giving this ERIC project?

PARKS: Yeah, so what makes ERIC special is also what makes it kind of complicated. It gets data not just from a state voting official, but also from a state's DMV, which experts say is really important to be able to say with more certainty that a John Smith, for instance, who votes in Arizona, is the same John Smith as somebody who votes in Connecticut. But these new partnerships that have just been announced do not involve that DMV information that's really hard to legally get and share. I talked about that with Michael Morse, who's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies voting.

MICHAEL MORSE: I can't see a case in which the state-by-state agreements that don't involve the sharing of confidential information can be more accurate than ERIC. It can't be.

PARKS: In other words, these states are recreating a portion of ERIC, just with less data and less reliable information.

MARTIN: You know, the irony, of course, is that people on the right are the ones who have been most vocal about their concerns about alleged voter fraud. But now your reporting also found that some of these right-leaning groups are trying to get into list maintenance.

PARKS: Right.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

PARKS: Yeah. So conservative activists are essentially trying to market their own fraud-finding software to states and local governments. There's no indication at this point that states are taking up on these offers, that are contracting with these sorts of groups. But what we're seeing is the same people who were pressuring state officials to leave ERIC are now pushing their own products for these states to try to do list maintenance. Potentially, these products could also be used by citizens to make public records requests and generally just push this idea that elections are fraudulent in the U.S.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Miles Parks. Miles, thank you.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.