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News Brief: Esper Interview, Democratic Debate, Gunman's iPhones


As Iranian missiles rained down on U.S. bases last week in Iraq, the head of the Pentagon confronted this scary prospect - possible all-out war with Iran.


Of course, that didn't end up happening, but in that moment, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was worried that it would. Here's what he says was going through his mind.

MARK ESPER: My first reaction was, well, here we go. It looks like they have finally acted, as there was some anticipation they might. And it brought up memories I had from my time in the Army in 1991 in the Gulf War.

GREENE: Our colleague Ari Shapiro, who hosts NPR's All Things Considered, was interviewing Esper late yesterday at the Pentagon. He joins us this morning. Morning, Ari.


GREENE: So this comes at a time, this conversation, when the Trump administration has really been struggling to get its story straight about all the intelligence that led to the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Did you get some clarity from the defense secretary?

SHAPIRO: I asked him. I mean, you'll remember that on Friday, the president said that there was intelligence about imminent attacks against four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad. Then on Sunday, Secretary Esper said he had not seen such intelligence. I was surprised that the administration, after a week and a half, still did not seem to all be on the same page. Esper and I went back and forth about this. And finally, I asked him this.


SHAPIRO: Do you agree that the messages have been mixed, at best, from this administration?

ESPER: I don't think so. I think they're nested in many ways. You know, this is one of those cases where somebody says six and somebody else says a half-dozen, and people like to find some type of discrepancy...

SHAPIRO: You said nested. I'm just not sure exactly what you mean by that term.

ESPER: What I mean is the information builds upon itself or is contained within a broader subset of things.

SHAPIRO: And, David, I followed up by asking him about an NBC report out yesterday that the strike on Soleimani was actually authorized seven months ago back in June. And he said that is not accurate. But it just shows how complicated and, some would say, inconsistent this administration's accounts have been.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about what might happen with Iran, Ari. I mean, we had the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, telling NPR News last week that the U.S. would hold Iran accountable for any attacks, even by proxy forces. Did the defense secretary talk about how that might play out, how the U.S. might actually respond if provoked?

SHAPIRO: He did in a surprising way. And this is a really important question right now because at this moment, you have bases in Iraq under attack by militias that are backed by Iran. And I wanted to know what holding Iran accountable for that might mean. Could it mean striking targets within Iran? And Esper actually answered the question twice - once during our 20-minute interview when he told me the U.S. would not strike sites in Iran for actions by its proxies.

He said the Authorization for the Use of Military Force - the AUMF - does not allow it. But then something odd happened. We finished our interview, packed up our stuff, left the office. And his press secretary then chased us down and said, the defense secretary needs to clarify one of his answers. So...

GREENE: They brought you back into the room?

SHAPIRO: They brought us back into his office. And he said, look. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force does not allow us to strike Iran as retaliation for actions by its proxies, but Article II of the Constitution does.


SHAPIRO: Do you believe the U.S. has the legal authority to strike Iran for the actions of militias in Iraq?

ESPER: If it is consistent with the commander in chief's authorities under Article II to defend the nation, our people and our interests, yes, we do.

SHAPIRO: This is different from what you said earlier, which was, we do not. I just want to know why you're no longer saying, we do not.

ESPER: I said we do not have authority under the 2002 AUMF to strike Iran.

SHAPIRO: And so you're distinguishing between that and Article II of the Constitution.

ESPER: That's exactly right. Those are two very different legal authorities.

GREENE: What a moment. So what stood out to you about this conversation?

SHAPIRO: You know, I asked him how the first two weeks of 2020 compared to what he had expected. And he told me he thought he was going to be focused on China this year. And when I said, how much time have you actually spent thinking about China in the last two weeks? He said, more than you would think.

GREENE: NPR's Ari Shapiro, who hosts our program All Things Considered. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. So in Iowa, there's really been this shift in tone in the Democratic presidential race.

KING: Yeah, there has been. In the last few days, the tone has gotten uglier, and it's also gotten a bit more personal. All of this matters because tonight, six Democrats will be on stage for their last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

GREENE: And NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is reporting in Des Moines, Iowa. Good morning, Danielle.


GREENE: So no clear frontrunner right now, it seems like, in this Democratic race.

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely right. I mean, we had a new poll come out yesterday from Monmouth University. That showed, yeah, Joe Biden in front. But close on his heels you had Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. And similarly, the Iowa poll from The Des Moines Register that came out relatively recently - just last week - that showed the four of them really bunched up towards the top. So

no, there's no real frontrunner. And besides that, the Iowa race often changes, often quite dramatically in the week before the caucuses. So this is really anybody's game. I mean, you have Sanders and Biden with their high name recognition. They have remained durable in polls. But the other two, Warren and Buttigieg - they are very organized here and very well-staffed, which could mean they are very good at getting their people out to caucus.

GREENE: And it is almost like Iowans love being unpredictable. It's one of the things that makes them proud. Like, don't judge us ahead of time. We are going to actually make our choices...

KURTZLEBEN: Well, they decide really late. Yeah.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, you know, the narrative that seems to be building right now is that this race is just - the attacks are getting sharper and uglier. What substantively are they actually fighting about, these candidates?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, you have a few topics. Take your pick - you know? - because this has popped up on a few fronts, right? I mean, so first of all, here's one front. You have Sanders supporters and surrogates who have gone on the attack against Warren and Biden in particular. Now, against Biden, they're not necessarily new attacks, but they're more aggressive.

What they've been going after him on, first of all, is his vote to approve the War in Iraq, especially given the situation in the Middle East now. It's sort of brought up new opportunities to attack Biden for that. And by the way, if you're feeling deja vu, it's because, at this point, the Iraq War has come to define Democratic primaries. Think about it - it's happened in 2004, 2008. 2016 it came up again. Now it's coming up again, which shows just the lasting impact. Of course, it was an unpopular war - at this point, very unpopular. And so this does keep coming up as long as there are people in these races who voted for or against it.

Aside from that, Bernie Sanders' campaign co-chair Nina Turner - she wrote an op-ed in a South Carolina newspaper this weekend saying that, essentially, Joe Biden has not delivered for black voters but that Bernie Sanders can. Now, of course, that comes as a poll recently came out from the Washington Post and Ipsos saying that Joe Biden is doing very well with black voters at 48%. Bernie Sanders was well behind that.

GREENE: And what about this escalation between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. We saw that come up on two fronts over the last few days. Politico first reported over the weekend saying that Sanders volunteers were using this script, this script saying that she can't really expand the base that she mostly appeals to - highly educated voters, for example. She responded saying she was disappointed.

Then we had this leaked story yesterday about a private 2018 meeting where - in which Sanders allegedly said that a woman can't win in 2020. Now, the sourcing was anonymous, but two of the people were linked to the Warren - they talked to Warren after that meeting. Now, Sanders has denied this, but this has become another thing that has really blown up. So both Sanders and Warren will probably be asked about that tonight at the debate. We'll see what they say.

GREENE: And that debate smaller than we've seen. Six candidates are going to be on stage. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben in Des Moines...

KURTZLEBEN: Six candidates.

GREENE: ...Yeah, down to six. Danielle, thanks a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. So once again, Apple is defying demands from the FBI.

KING: Yeah, here's what's happening. Last month, you might remember, a man shot and killed three people and injured eight people at a naval base in Pensacola. The FBI wants Apple to unlock his iPhones, which, so far, Apple has not done. U.S. Attorney General William Barr says Apple isn't doing enough to help law enforcement with this investigation.

GREENE: And NPR's technology correspondent Shannon Bond has been following this story and joins us. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with why the government needs Apple here.

BOND: Right. So the FBI has two iPhones that belonged to the gunman in Pensacola, who was a Saudi air force cadet. And law enforcement has a court order to see who he was communicating with before the attack. But the phones are locked, and their contents are encrypted, so the government is asking Apple for help. But Apple has long said it won't unlock devices and break its encryption. That's really frustrated the attorney general. Here's what William Barr said on Monday.


WILLIAM BARR: So far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause.

GREENE: OK. So that's the attorney general's argument. What exactly has Apple's response been? How are they explaining this?

BOND: Well, Apple's rejecting Barr's characterization in a statement it put out on Monday. It says it's already turned over gigabytes of information to the government, things like iCloud backups and transactional data. But what the FBI wants is the communications on the phones. And Apple sees that kind of request as asking it to build a backdoor into its phones that anyone could use. I spoke with Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at Tufts. And she says that kind of backdoor would make it easier for criminals to access personal, financial and health information.

SUSAN LANDAU: The risks are that it becomes easier to open anybody else's phone. The whole reason Apple went to the model of making the data on the phone more secure is that hackers were taking data off the phone and then using it for identity theft.

BOND: And that's pretty much what we saw Apple say again on Monday in its statement. It says, quote, "there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys."

GREENE: Am I right? - this sounds a lot like the situation with an iPhone that belonged to the shooter in that terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., back in 2015.

BOND: Yeah. This is very much a similar conflict that was in play back then. And you might remember, in the San Bernardino case, the government actually sued Apple to force the company to unlock the phone. Apple resisted. There was this tense standoff with the Obama administration.

In the end, it was sort of diffused. The government wound up working with a third-party contractor to get into the phone. And since then, Apple has reportedly even improved its encryption and software to make its devices even more secure, even harder to get into now.

GREENE: But any sense for how this legal battle, these larger questions, are going to get resolved?

BOND: Well, experts say, really, it's Congress that needs to weigh in. I spoke with Jim Baker. He was the FBI's general counsel during the San Bernardino case. He says there's not really an easy solution. You're trying to balance law enforcement's desire for access on public safety grounds, Apple's worries about security. The other solution would be to go back to the courts. And if the government gets a court order, that raises the question, would Apple comply?

GREENE: A lot of questions remaining there. NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks so much, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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.