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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is ending its pursuit of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

This case has been going on for so long that if you had a baby during the year that Assange published classified U.S. documents in 2010, that baby would be a teenager now. Now, for most of that time, the U.S. has been trying to extradite Assange from the U.K. If a plea deal goes as expected, he'll be sentenced to time already served. His mother said in a statement that she was grateful that her son's, quote, "ordeal is finally coming to an end."

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has covered this case for years and years and years. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's a plea deal, so I can just ask, what's the deal?

JOHNSON: Assange has agreed to plead guilty to one charge, conspiracy to obtain and disclose information related to the national defense. And he's likely to enter that plea in the case in a U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands later this week. It's happening there because he did not want to set foot in the continental United States. Under the terms of the deal, he'd serve about five years in prison. He's already served that much time in the United Kingdom in the Belmarsh prison, where he's been waiting out extradition proceedings.

INSKEEP: OK this, I'm remembering, was a case that outraged a lot of Americans, particularly Americans in the government, Americans who were named in many of the documents that he published. What kind of data are we talking about here?

JOHNSON: The indictment from Virginia accused Julian Assange of working with military private Chelsea Manning to get records related to the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Assange also published hundreds of thousands of sensitive cables from the State Department. Prosecutors and intelligence analysts said Assange failed to black out the names of American informants. And they said that put American lives and foreign lives at risk.

INSKEEP: OK. And if that's the case, why would the United States finally make a deal?

JOHNSON: Well, Australian leaders had really been lobbying the White House for years now. They pointed out that then-President Obama shortened the prison sentence for Chelsea Manning, and the Assange case just kept dragging on for years. Julian Assange is a native Australian. He's expected to go back there after his court proceeding ends, and President Biden actually got a question about this back in April at a news conference. Biden said at the time he was considering the request from Australia to send Assange home.

INSKEEP: OK. And of course, the United States wants to be very close allies with Australia, so they have a little bit of leverage here. But what are some of the reactions?

JOHNSON: WikiLeaks put out a statement on social media saying it had published groundbreaking stories of corruption and human rights abuses, for which Julian Assange paid a high price. He's soon expected to reunite with his wife and children. It's worth noting that while he has few fans in the Justice Department or the State Department here, human rights groups and media groups have been vocal supporters of his. They've been arguing these charges against Assange could have broad implications. And it could allow a future Justice Department to charge journalists with crimes for publishing national security secrets. The Obama DOJ never filed charges against Julian Assange. It was the Trump Justice Department that finally took that step.

INSKEEP: I'm just reminded of the debates over this man's case and the question of whether he was a journalist who was just publishing stuff he was given or whether he should be treated more like a spy.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and that debate may end soon with this plea. But it may not be the end of this kind of bizarre saga that started with a run-in with Swedish authorities, led to him holing up in an embassy in London for seven years and now finally potentially returning home to Australia.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, a Florida judge hears arguments today in one of the criminal cases against former President Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, this is the case of classified documents the FBI recovered from Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. The case is before Aileen Cannon, a judge Trump appointed. And she's been hearing defense motions challenging the case. Trump's lawyers want to make a case today that the search was illegal.

INSKEEP: The lawyers have also contended that special counsel Jack Smith, the prosecutor, was appointed illegally to investigate the ex-president. Josh Gerstein is covering this. He is senior legal affairs reporter for Politico. Josh, welcome back.

JOSH GERSTEIN: Hey, Steve, good to be with you.

INSKEEP: So I'm just thinking about this. A special counsel was appointed in this case to be a little more independent and avoid any appearance that Trump was being prosecuted by a political opponent, arguably to his benefit. So why would that be illegal?

GERSTEIN: Well, we've seen a number of these special counsels in recent years, you may recall, including special counsel Robert Mueller appointed to investigate Trump. And we've got another one who's out there at the moment investigating President Biden's son, Hunter Biden, and actually prosecuting him in two different courts. So it's become a pretty commonplace thing in politically charged cases, but Trump is - by Attorney General Merrick Garland that the Constitution - there's so much power being exercised by the special counsel that the Constitution requires that this kind of an official be essentially nominated formally by the president and appointed by the Senate. Of course, as you seem to be alluding to, Steve, this does seem at odds with sort of a public argument that Trump has been making, that these charges are sort of a political crock and are in fact being directed out of the Biden White House, which there doesn't seem to be much in the way of evidence of at this point.

INSKEEP: OK, so you said that the argument was that this should go before the Senate like a regular nomination for a cabinet post. There should be a confirmation hearing of some kind. You heard two days of legal arguments about that. What's the pushback?

GERSTEIN: Well, the pushback is that this is a mechanism that the Justice Department set up in the wake of the expiration of the independent counsel law that some of the older listeners might remember was in effect in the' 80s and '90s, under which a court panel basically appointed independent counsels to do these kinds of politically charged investigations. Politicians in both parties decided they didn't like that law very much, and they allowed it to expire. And the Justice Department then stepped in and created its own kind of internal mechanism that lets them appoint officials to do investigations. They're under some supervision by the attorney general, but they're really not subject to oversight from all the other offices in the department that are normally involved in either running or overseeing a criminal investigation.

INSKEEP: OK, so just so I understand, this case, Jack Smith, this is being done under Justice Department proceedings. There's not detailed law that governs what is happening here. Is that what you're telling me?

GERSTEIN: Right. It's being done under 25-year-old regulations that were put in place at the end of the Clinton administration that allow attorneys general to appoint special counsels when they think it's a case that may present some kind of conflict of interest for the department.

INSKEEP: OK. And we will continue listening today as there are arguments over the legality of the search of Trump's home at Mar-a-Lago. Josh Gerstein of Politico, thanks very much for the update. I really appreciate it.

GERSTEIN: Thank you. Nice to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, the Upper Midwest is facing catastrophic flooding after days of heavy rain.

MARTÍNEZ: Parts of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa are hardest hit. And for some neighborhoods in the region, this is the second major flood in just five years. Rob Jansen (ph) of Rock Valley, Iowa, was helping his mom after her house was severely damaged by floodwaters.

ROB JANSEN: It's nice to be by the river for recreation, but it's also a risk that you take living by one when it floods like this, when you lose everything. Some people lost their homes totally, so not easy to see.

INSKEEP: Rebecca Hersher of NPR's climate desk is here with more. Rebecca, good morning.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so if we just look at a map, this is an area with a lot of rivers that feed into the Mississippi River. What caused them to rise so much?

HERSHER: Honestly, it's just bonkers amounts of rain last week and into the weekend. Seven inches of rain fell in just two days in parts of South Dakota. That is the most rain ever recorded in 130 years there.

INSKEEP: Wow.

HERSHER: And that caused these rivers to swell. You know, a disaster like this can unfold kind of slowly 'cause it takes time for all the stormwater to collect and flow downstream. So last few days, as the water has crested, we've seen the real damage. So homes destroyed, bridges and dams broken, levees overtopped. And unfortunately, all of this is exactly what scientists expect will happen more and more in this part of the country as the Earth heats up.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the connection between climate change and this type of flooding? Some people will have questions because there've always been floods.

HERSHER: There have always been floods. Heavy rain, though, is getting more common in the Upper Midwest. So in the last 60 years - have noticed that when it rains really hard, more water is falling than in the past, like 25% to 45% more water. So not a little bit more rain, a lot more rain. And the other thing that scientists have been warning about for decades is that heavier rain means more frequent major floods. So floods that used to happen every few decades instead are going to happen every few years, and we're definitely seeing that on display as well. You know, this part of the country also had a record-breaking flood in 2019, and now just, you know, five years later.

INSKEEP: Although, this is also a part of the country that has tried to adapt to floods. If you go to rivers in this area, there's often, like, park land, open space near the river. There are levees. There are flood zones. Is this not enough?

HERSHER: You know, it's not enough. Some of that infrastructure was able to keep up with all this water. But in many places, the existing levees in particular are just not high enough to handle record-breaking rain. And I spoke to hydrologist Nicholas Pinter about this. He says levees are built to protect against the floods in the past, you know, but today's climate is not the climate of the past.

NICHOLAS PINTER: The current flooding in the Upper Midwest is a reminder that we've put a lot of eggs in the basket of protection by levees. And it's a brittle protection. So your levee holds until suddenly it doesn't, and the result is often catastrophic and sudden flooding.

HERSHER: And that's what we're seeing right now. Now, modernizing flood protection in places like the Upper Midwest will take a lot of money. And some of that money is actually starting to be doled out. There are billions of dollars for this kind of work in the bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed just a couple of years ago.

INSKEEP: Rebecca, thanks for the update.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREMER/MCCOY'S "AFKALD") 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.