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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Investigators have revealed a lot by obtaining text messages from January 6, 2021.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But they say they are not learning a thing from text messages by the Secret Service. An inspector general requested text messages by agents who protect the president. Investigators contend that after receiving that request, the Secret Service deleted the messages. Agents are part of the story of then-President Trump's movements on January 6.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales joins us now. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the source for this statement that the Secret Service deleted, what sure sounds like evidence?

GRISALES: This comes from one of many investigations into the attack. The House January 6 committee is a high-profile one, but this was the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Secret Service. They wrote a letter to Congress detailing a request for these messages for that two-day period on January 5 and 6 of last year. This inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, said the department notified them that, quote, "many of these texts were erased as part of a device-replacement program." Cuffari said in a letter to congressional homeland security committees that the messages were deleted after the watchdog requested them as the inspector general's evaluation of events of January 6.

INSKEEP: Does the Secret Service admit they deleted these messages?

GRISALES: Yes. And a spokesman also said there's a false insinuation these were maliciously deleted, and rather, the agency started to reset their mobile phones last January, losing this data as part of a monthslong migration plan, and added they have cooperated with this watchdog in every way possible.

INSKEEP: OK, so they only push back on the idea that they did it on purpose.

GRISALES: Right. They argue they didn't get that request for the messages until after they started deleting texts.

INSKEEP: Well, what could these messages possibly have shown?

GRISALES: Well, remember, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified before the January 6 committee, in a public hearing, the story of a standoff between Trump and his lead Secret Service agent, Bobby Engel, as Trump tried to join his supporters marching to the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel. We're going back to the West Wing; we're not going to the Capitol. Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel.

GRISALES: Anonymous sources around the Secret Service have reportedly disputed some of this testimony, which was given under oath. However, that sparked discussion about new evidence of interest to the House Select January 6 committee, and these text messages may have been able to clear up that confusion.

INSKEEP: OK. What do the many investigators do now that they seem not to be able to get the messages?

GRISALES: Right. The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Panel, Gary Peters, said they need to get to the bottom of whether Secret Service destroyed federal records or the Department of Homeland Security obstructed oversight. Peters said the public deserves to have a full picture of what happened on January 6, and he'll be meeting with the inspector general, Cuffari. A spokesman for the House panel said they're also expecting such a meeting, and as it turns out, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson. Thompson also chairs the January 6 committee. So this will likely add a whole new line of investigation for the panel, which is looking to hold a hearing next week and issue a final report sometime in the fall.

INSKEEP: Thompson's a busy man.

GRISALES: Right.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Claudia Grisales is a busy correspondent. Thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right. President Biden makes a very short trip today.

MARTIN: Yeah, he's been meeting Israeli officials in Jerusalem, and that put him within a few miles of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. So today he's going there, meeting Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the ground in Jerusalem. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so Israel is clearly, as this Biden trip has emphasized, the big U.S. ally. That's been emphasized and reinforced in the last couple of days. What does Biden now say to Palestinians?

ESTRIN: He's saying the U.S. hasn't abandoned you. You know, the U.S. has a credibility problem with the Palestinians. Trump recognized Israel's claims to Jerusalem. Palestinians also have claims in Jerusalem. And so in protest, Palestinian leaders cut ties with Trump, and Trump retaliated by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. So Biden is reversing that. They've announced hundreds of millions of U.S. aid dollars to Palestinian hospitals and refugees. The U.S. has convinced Israel to allow Palestinians high-speed internet and some other steps.

But I spoke with a Palestinian official today who said, OK, that's great, but we want political progress. These steps don't give us Palestinians autonomy over our economy. They just give us some economic improvement. The control remains in Israel's hands. These are the things that will probably come up when Biden meets today with the Palestinian leader, Abbas.

INSKEEP: Oh, really, really interesting because there's been this whole debate about whether Palestinians should get economic improvement or political power. Where exactly is Biden going in the West Bank?

ESTRIN: Well, before he goes to the West Bank, he visited East Jerusalem, which is a place no sitting U.S. president has ever been. It's symbolic because Palestinians want that part of Jerusalem for their capital. And there he told Palestinians at a hospital that he connects to their search for hope, as someone with Irish heritage. Listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It goes like this - and it's classically Irish, but it also could fit Palestinians. It says, (reading) history teaches us not to hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up and hope and history rhyme.

ESTRIN: So that's an Irish poem he's reciting. And, you know, he's going also in the West Bank to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. That's in Bethlehem. And when his motorcade goes there, it may pass posters that activists have put up calling for justice for Palestinians.

INSKEEP: You know, I was looking at your photos on Twitter of this East Jerusalem hospital that Biden was walking around. It looks like an amazing facility.

ESTRIN: Oh, it's beautiful. It's a historic place, a stone building. But, you know, if Biden had more time there, he could walk around, and he could really see the microcosm of Palestinian life that it is, where patients have to get Israeli security permission just to come to the hospital. And that was something that he was trying to connect with Palestinians today. He said, you deserve dignity.

INSKEEP: Now, the president is visiting multiple nations here. He will next go - soon go on to Saudi Arabia. And the very fact that he's flying from Israel to Saudi Arabia illustrates some news here, doesn't it?

ESTRIN: It does. The Saudis are allowing civilian flights from Israel through its airspace now. Biden calls that historic. It's a small step toward Israeli-Saudi ties. And, you know, that's - it's also kind of a positive spin on Biden's otherwise controversial trip to Saudi Arabia, where he'll be meeting the Saudi crown prince, a person who the U.S. has implicated in the death of - and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, when does a war between two countries turn into terrorism?

MARTIN: Ukrainian officials say this has already happened. A cruise missile strike by Russia has killed 23 people in a civilian neighborhood of Vinnytsia, a city in central Ukraine. U.S. officials say Russia is forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of civilians from captured territory.

INSKEEP: Let's pick up the story with NPR's Brian Mann. He is in Vinnytsia this morning at the site of the rocket attacks. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing?

MANN: Well, it's awful here, Steve. I'm standing in what is one of the central squares of this small city. There's a little park, apartment buildings and shops. But two of the biggest buildings are now shattered, just gutted by these cruise missiles. There's rubble everywhere. I spoke with Iryna Borodina, who lives in one of the apartments nearby.

IRYNA BORODINA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: She told me, Steve, that just a few days ago she was in the medical clinic here that was destroyed by these missiles. She was getting treatment there. And she's worried about the nurses and other people still missing. I can see right now first responders still going in and out. They're searching for dozens of people still unaccounted for.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the motivation here for striking these civilian targets. Civilians do get caught up in war. It can be what's called collateral damage. But Ukrainian officials seem to think that there is a very long pattern now of civilians being deliberately targeted.

MANN: Yeah, that's right, Steve. That's the official line. And I should say that also, the people here in Vinnytsia, they experience this, just as humans, as terrorism. That's how they describe it to me. One thing you notice about a place like this, where I'm standing, is the smell. The smell of buildings burned and reduced to ruins is really distinct. I spent a lot of time at ground zero in New York City after 9/11. It's the same smell here.

And what Ukrainians say is this keeps happening. Civilian areas keep getting hit by Russia, areas that have no apparent military value. This attack yesterday particularly deadly - children killed here. But there was another missile strike just this morning in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, where officials say cruise missiles heavily damaged two universities. And what Ukrainians believe is that the goal by Russia is to intimidate their population, to put pressure on the Zelenskyy government to sue for peace.

INSKEEP: Any sign that the Russian tactic would be working?

MANN: As far as I can tell, Russian strikes against civilian areas seem to be having the opposite effect. People are frightened and heartbroken. I'm seeing people bring flowers to this site this morning. But they're also furious, Steve, and they say they want justice. I spoke about this with Oksana Urbanska, who's helping with the recovery and cleanup effort here today.

OKSANA URBANSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: She told me this search and rescue operation is incredibly hard because these buildings are unstable now and dangerous. But it's also hard because first responders are working side by side with investigators, war crimes investigators, who are gathering physical evidence, which officials here hope will eventually be used in trials against Russians involved in these attacks.

And terrible as these missile strikes are, they're part of what the Biden administration also describes as a wider pattern of atrocities by Russia. There's evidence of rape being used as a weapon of intimidation in occupied areas. And this week, Steve, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia is forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to distant parts of Russia. Blinken says it's imperative that Russia be held accountable.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that is another thing that I believe is regarded as a war crime, a crime against humanity, actually - forcible relocation, forced migration.

MANN: That's right.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brian Mann in Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.