NPR Reporters Reflect On 2010's Important Stories
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Over the course of an hour, we can't possibly review all the big stories of this past year in any depth. So we've asked four NPR correspondents to look back through their reporters' notebooks with us, on assignments that included the Times Square bomber; a trip down the Congo river; estimating the weight of a cloud; and the huge and usually controversial health-care reform law.
We'll be joined by counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, health policy correspondent Julie Rovner, science correspondent Robert Krulwich. You can email questions for them now: firstname.lastname@example.org.
But we begin with our woman in West Africa, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. What do you want to know about a story she reported or someone she interviewed this past year? Call 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now on the phone from her post in Dakar, Senegal, is NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.
And nice to have you back on the program. Merry Christmas.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Seasons greetings from Dakar.
CONAN: We begin with the news of the day, the story you've been covering these past few weeks: the post-election violence in the Ivory Coast. I guess the news today is, one of the sides called for a general strike.
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. That's Alassane Ouattara, and he is the presidential challenger who was declared the winner by the electoral commission, certified by the U.N. - sorry, it's a long explanation, but let me get it in - and then backed by the international community, including the U.N., the White House - most importantly, probably - Ivory Coast's neighbors and the African Union.
His political coalition called for a strike - nationwide strike today. We're hearing that it didn't take in the main city, Abidjan. But where he has his support base in the north - the former rebel territory - there, they haven't worked.
So I think Ivorians are feeling too nervous. They're nervous about going to work. They're nervous about staying home. They're nervous about the uncertainty. They're nervous about the violence. They just want their political leaders to make peace and propel this country forward.
CONAN: You mentioned Ivory Coast's neighbors. They are grouped in an organization called - awkwardly - ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Threats - we've also heard today that there could be military intervention from ECOWAS.
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, ECOWAS decided last Friday, Christmas Eve - they held a daylong summit, and West African leaders reiterated their call to the incumbent president of the past 10 years, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down. And they warned him that this was the last chance. If he's not prepared to go peacefully, hand power to Alassane Ouattara, military force could be an option.
They're sending three West African leaders - the presidents of Sierra Leone, Benin and Cape Verde - to Ivory Coast tomorrow to talk to Laurent Gbagbo; no doubt, also, Alassane Ouattara, who I must say is holed up in a hotel on the east side of Abidjan, protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
And although they say they're governing from there, they don't have free movement because the whole area has been circled by Gbagbo's troops. So we'll see what the West African leaders can get out of Gbagbo. But up 'til now, he has defied all pressure - international, regional, continental - saying: You didn't win this election; step down.
He says he is the elected leader; that the Constitutional Council declared him the winner; and that he won't put up with any meddling, either from the region or from the rest of the world; that he will safeguard Ivory Coast's sovereignty.
CONAN: Well, we're going to have to wait and see how that plays out. The United States State Department said today it backed the president's mission to Abidjan. So we'll have to see how that plays out so far. Both sides are holding firm. And I guess there's real concern now, we could see a replay of the civil war that this election was supposed to resolve.
QUIST-ARCTON: Or maybe even worse because what Ivory Coast has seen to date - 2002 was a failed coup and a rebellion, which split the nation. So although Ivorians talk about la sangre(ph), this dirty war, they haven't really lived civil war.
Yes, there have been deaths. Yes, there has been sporadic violence. But they haven't see the sort of civil wars that have been witnessed across the border in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the whole country has been destroyed.
Both countries are now emerging from civil war, and there's a real fear in West Africa that if Ivory Coast - which used to be this oasis of stability, prosperity and peace in West Africa - if it really goes to war, it could be very, very bloody indeed - and of course, spill over the borders and destabilize the whole region.
CONAN: We're talking with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR West Africa correspondent. Her stories this year have included the World Cup, the new king in West Africa - King Peggy. If you'd like to talk with her about some of the stories she's done this past year: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
But Ofeibea, I can't forget the story - the series of stories you did on that wonderful trip, and it must have been very exciting to take, down the Congo River.
QUIST-ARCTON: It was. I mean, it was almost - well, at least a professional lifelong dream to go floating along this mighty river, which I managed to do with NPR producer Jonathan Blakely and our Congolese colleague Emery Makumeno, Agalu Makumeno.
And, you know, you know that an odyssey on a river is going to be exciting. But this was perhaps even more so than I had expected, because I guess I thought I would be going on some sort of boat. But it wasn't a boat at all, Neal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
QUIST-ARCTON: It was a barge - in fact, two 50-foot barges lashed together. And literally, we could see over the sides. And the whole thing, 300-plus of us - plus goats and eagles and chickens and all sorts -we were, you know, pushed by what seemed like a tiny pusher.
And it was quite something. It was like a floating village, almost like a floating camp, with people getting on with their lives - cooking, looking after their children, everything that you would do on land, but all happening on this extraordinary African waterway, in the heart of the continent.
CONAN: And what you called a pusher, I suspect we would call a tugboat. But in any case, a very small one, it sounds like. Tell me: What was the food like?
QUIST-ARCTON: Ooh. Now, the food was one of the highlights. I have to tell you, Congo River fish is assorted and delicious. And we were very lucky at maybe who was - I guess we could call her our neighbor in a cabin, but there was no cabin. You live outdoors. Everything happens under tarpaulins.
We were lucky to be able to put our equipment in the cabin of the owner of the boat - and thank goodness because you're out there with the elements. If it rains, it rains on you. If the sun is beating down, it beats down on you.
But the food was incredibly fresh. What happens is, the villagers all along the river - and we started at Mbandaka, which is about halfway down from the navigable portion, in Kisangani, all the way to Kinshasa. Villagers pull their dugout canoes with fresh vegetables, pineapples, greens - you name it. They bring it onto the barge, and they start selling - fresh bread.
And so every day, you're eating fresh food, freshly produced. And Maman Gisele(ph), who was sitting opposite us - because, of course, we were working as well as traveling - said: You know what? I think I'm going to cook for you because you guys don't seem to have time.
She made us the most wonderful fish - grilled, fish in stews. And you eat that with shikwan(ph), which is a local staple made out of cassava, or whatever else is going. We ate very well.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is on the line with us from Dakar. And here is Tom, Tom with us -calling from Houston.
TOM (Caller): Yes. You know, one of my favorite books I ever read was "Heart of Darkness." And that has really shaped how I have imagined the Congo. How has it changed in relation to that book - which was written, what, a century ago? And has it really dramatically improved?
QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, Tom. I find "Heart of Darkness" - it's, you know, Joseph Conrad is an extraordinary writer. But it was a little bit negative. You know, people along the Congo River are living. They're existing. They're resisting. They're getting on with life.
I think it's too easy to look at Congo and see doom and gloom. But yes, this is a country that is hugely wealthy in natural resources, in mineral resources. It has everything from coltan - in your cell phone or your laptop - to copper, to gold. And because of that, this - lots of people want it: people from the region, people from inside, people from further afield.
So Congo has lived through troubles, and it's still living through troubles. But the Congolese are wonderful people. And their river - for them, you know, it's - they call it the giant boulevard. They call it the giant avenue that allows them to travel to see family, to do commerce, to do trade. For them, it's - you know, it is such an important lifeline. And for me, that was the most important thing.
Yes, "Heart of Darkness" - but you know, there's much more to Congo than that.
TOM: OK, one last question: Why is it, though, that - it seems to me like the national media or the Western media seems to portray the Congo, and any nations around the River Congo, as still very backward, full of infighting, civil war, and savage mistreatment of their people. This is what I'm having - I want to believe in a Congo and a Central Africa that is so much more than what the "Heart of Darkness" portrayed, but it seems to me that - at least in the media, and in what I see or read - it confirms what I read in "Heart of Darkness."
QUIST-ARCTON: Tom, did you listen to the Congo River series? Will you please do so if you haven't? And you'll get - you know, we tried to be fair. We talked about the troubles in Congo, but there's a lot more to the country than that.
And yes, I think it's important that we do talk about other things. Congo is extraordinary. It's a country of culture and art. It's a country of - because of its huge natural resources, you see that reflected in things like art.
There's art made out of wood. There's art of paintings. There's art made out of metal. All these things make up the Congo. If it gets a bad press, I guess it's because for many people, Congo is a bit of a mythical country...
QUIST-ARCTON: ...and, you know, they're used to hearing about, you know, from "Heart of Darkness" days and others who've written about it.
But you know, there's a Congolese singer called Kabasele, who sang about the river. I mean, he sang a wonderful song about how important the river is.
So, you know, the music of Congo is an extraordinarily rich - (foreign language spoken), as they say. It's part of the country's wealth. All these things make up this extraordinary country in the heart of Africa, and we shouldn't just focus on the negative. It's much too easy to do.
I blame myself. I'm a journalist; it's true that we tend to concentrate, sometimes, on the tougher things that are happening on this continent. But there are also really good things happening. And I hope you'll feel, when you listen to the Congo River series - that you get a bit of that, too.
CONAN: And you can listen to that Congo River series - Tom, thanks very much for the call - at npr.org. Ten seconds, Ofeibea, this email from Beth in Sacramento: What was the biggest surprise you encountered on that trip down the river?
(Soundbite of laughter)
QUIST-ARCTON: Getting there. Getting to Kinshasa in one piece. I have to tell you that we had some hairy moments. Let me talk seriously. You've got be careful because it is a huge river, but sand banks - sandbars, maybe, they're called in American English...
CONAN: Ofeibea, we've got to go. This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner had a busy year, covering the passage of the health-care bill. The law was finally passed in March, after much controversy and deal-making. The law is already being challenged by some 20 states attorney general. More from Julie in a moment.
Though we will begin with NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who brought us many interesting stories this past year - about hurricanes and slowing down time, for example. If you have questions for Robert Krulwich or Julie Rovner, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our website as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Robert Krulwich wondered about many things this past year, including how big a hurricane really is. To find out, Robert and scientist Andy Heymsfield, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, used an unusual unit of measure.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So, then, how many elephant units of water are there in a regular storm cloud?
Mr. ANDY HEYMSFIELD (National Center for Atmospheric Research): We are talking a huge number.
KRULWICH: What is it?
Mr. HEYMSFIELD: Something like 15 million elephants in the air, in condensed form.
Mr. HEYMSFIELD: It's very, very big.
KRULWICH: OK, so now we're ready for hurricanes. I guess they're completely off the charts?
Mr. HEYMSFIELD: The scale is just unimaginable.
CONAN: Robert Krulwich joins us from NPR's bureau in New York.
So Robert, how many elephants' worth of snow were there in that storm that hit yesterday?
KRULWICH: Oh, gosh, a lot of elephants - although, you know, as New York storms go, I was able to walk here, and things were pretty civilized. And many, many, many contiguous blocks were clean as a whistle. So, you know...
CONAN: So blowing pretty good, though.
CONAN: All right.
KRULWICH: So the elephants, that's the one you - that was an interesting one, because I was trying to figure out: How much water does a hurricane move? I mean, you know they take a lot of water off the ocean, pull it up into the air, and then drop it somewhere - usually on us. And so the question was: How do you go about thinking about a lift like that?
And the fellow I was talking to did like to talk in elephant shapes. And I asked him like - well, why? He said, well, if I just told you 100 billion pounds of water or whatever, it wouldn't really mean very much to you. But people could imagine a big elephant floating in the sky.
So I said OK, then let's just count the number of elephants you would see if you were trying to weigh a hurricane. And the number he did come up with was a hundred-million elephants in the sky.
CONAN: I suspect he found one of the few reporters around who can imagine elephants floating around in the sky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: Well, you know, if you go to the, you know, Thanksgiving Day Parade, I suppose you could sort of think of it that way. And that's sort of the fun of what I get to do - is, I get to, you know, look around and just sort of imagine.
So all year - looking up this past year, I got completely fascinated at one point, when arsenic was being discovered as a possible ingredient in living things. Most living things have just a certain number of chemicals that we all associate with organic chemistry, and arsenic is not one of them. And it sounds kind of dangerous. But for a little while there, we thought maybe somebody had created a living thing that was built, in part, of arsenic. And I was still thinking about clouds and stuff, and I began reading about intelligent cloud life.
This was another thing that Carl Sagan had wondered about earlier, and that a fellow named David Grinspoon had wondered about quite seriously -is that clouds here on Earth seem very sort of scattery and very - a living thing probably should have a shape, should have some kind of continuous sort of stratified and structural existence. It should be able to grow and copy and persist.
Could clouds do that? Well, this Mr. Grinspoon thought that they could, and Carl Sagan thought that they could, too. And so I got - I began to write about: Well, what would a living or thinking cloud-life critter be like? And that was another one.
And then as long as you're looking up, I was told that if you stand outside on a summer day and look up, this is a cloud that you can't see, but it's very there. Right above you are many, many - I think the number was 3 billion in a month - teeny insects are flying right over your head on a warm day.
I said: Well, what kind of insects? And then we got to actually look and see, and there's just an enormous - they're very tiny, but they're all up there, looking for food or looking for mates, or looking for a new home. And there's an enormous migration in the summertime, and it's all there, just right within reach.
CONAN: NPR's Robert Krulwich with us. Stay with us, Robert. We're going to find out more about what you've done, and what you're planning to do in the next year.
But we want to bring another voice into the conversation: Julie Rovner, who spent much of 2010 covering health care - and also made time to stop by Studio 3A and talk about one of her great loves, horses, which we've done from time to time on this program.
When President Obama signed the health-care law this past March, Julie took us into what was a very emotional signing ceremony.
JULIE ROVNER: It felt more like a campaign rally, or even a high school pep rally, than a formal ceremony.
Unidentified Group: Fired up, ready to go. Fired up, ready to go. Fired up, ready to go.
ROVNER: Vice President Biden noted the significance of the event in his introduction of President Obama.
Vice President JOE BIDEN: History is made when a leader steps up, stays true to his values, and charts a fundamentally different course for the country.
ROVNER: When he turned the podium over to the president, though, Biden whispered his uncensored opinion of the importance of the day, including the F-word - which was, of course, caught on tape.
Vice President BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
(Soundbite of applause)
Vice President BIDEN: This is a big (beep) deal.
CONAN: Well, Julie, to paraphrase the vice president, just how a big a deal is this?
ROVNER: Well, you know, it's a very big deal. Like it or hate it, this is the biggest change in health policy - certainly, since Medicare in 1965; some people will say even bigger. And certainly, there are people who like it, and people who hate it.
I was kind of taken by Robert's description of 50 million floating elephants. I think there's a lot of Democrats who are now struggling to keep this law alive, who feel like there are 50 million elephants - in the way of Republicans who are trying to move in and take this law away.
But it promises to provide health insurance coverage to 32 million Americans who don't have it now. It's already - there are many benefits that are already taking effect. You're allowed to keep your adult children on their health plans - on parents' health plans until they're 26.
People on Medicare are now having the doughnut hole in their health coverage filled. You can no longer have lifetime limits on your health insurance plans. Starting next year, we'll see these calorie labels on menus at chain restaurants.
So there's all these benefits that are starting. The big benefits, of course, and the controversial ones, won't start until 2014. That's this very controversial requirement that everyone - or almost everyone have health insurance, and these new exchanges where people will be able to go to buy insurance.
CONAN: All right. We're going to be talking a lot about that, including the challenges in court. But in any case, remind our listeners, if they'd like to talk to Robert about what he's done or Julie about what she's doing, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We've got a question for Robert on the line. Gary's calling us from Sacramento.
GARY (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, there.
GARY: I have another sky question for your guest.
KRULWICH: Go ahead.
GARY: Looking at astronomy books, you see pictures of what our galaxy looks like - the spiral, Milky Way galaxy. And I've always wondered how, if we're one of just billions of gazillions of stars in that galaxy, very deep inside that galaxy, isn't it kind of like a grain of sand in a desert trying to determine what the shape of a desert is? How do we actually figure out...
KRULWICH: Well, we have some news on that, as it happens, for this year. It turns out that our galaxy doesn't look normal. We thought all this time that here's what a galaxy's got.
(Soundbite of animals)
KRULWICH: Well, I don't know. It doesn't have dogs and cats.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: And the galaxy I am thinking of - which lacks any animal noises - is a galaxy where you have a sun in the middle, and then you have these little, rocky things right around the sun. And then it gets kind of cold, and then you have these big, gassy planets on the outside. That's what was called a normal solar system.
KRULWICH: We've now discovered hundreds of solar systems. And very, very, very few - I think maybe a couple - look like us. They turn out to be big, fat, sort of gassy planets that are so close to their suns that they're like Mercury-close.
There doesn't seem to be the system - the situation that we have. There doesn't seem to be what we thought was ordinary. So apparently, here's some news: Our solar system is very, very unusual. Rocks near the sun; then big, gassy things; and then icicles on the outside - that's odd.
Here's normal. Normal is like, big, puffy things ballooning (technical difficulties) suns and acting with crazy orbits. That's normal.
CONAN: So alien astrologers are worrying about Jupiter in retrograde.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: Well, I think it's Jupiter, actually. Jupiter is the - our Jupiter is really unusual. But that's another story.
CONAN: That's another story. So Gary, we may be still puzzling out galaxies, but we're learning a little bit about solar systems. So the oasis, if not the desert, is beginning to take a little bit of shape.
GARY: Well, I was just trying to figure out what evidence we had that we were a spiral galaxy versus just any other shaped galaxy.
GARY: What - and how do we actually see the outer edges?
CONAN: With great difficulty.
KRULWICH: Yeah, gosh, how do we do that? I think it's probably by - you know, that is a question I've never - you obviously don't take an elevator to a high point and then look down. That doesn't happen. I guess what you do is, you do it by analogy, or you do mapping.
You can probably - wow. You can - you know, I'm not sure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: But here's my guess. My guess is that you measure light, and then the light basically becomes the streets and the highways and the byways. And then you take it, and then you build the map logically from the light that you measure. And then, again, you analogize to galaxies that you can see across great distances, and you assume that yours looks like theirs. That's my guess. But...
GARY: But you'll find out for us by - for 2011.
CONAN: Stay tuned, Gary.
KRULWICH: Yes. Stay tuned, as I get my weird binoculars.
CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the phone call.
CONAN: Now, let's see - we go next to - this is Chris, and Chris is with us from Traverse City in Michigan.
CHRIS (Caller): Oh, yeah. I had a quick question about arsenic and life forms. I was under the impression that like, a month or two ago, some scientists had just recently discovered life forms that were mainly comprised of arsenic.
KRULWICH: You're right.
CHRIS: And that fundamentally, it's changing how we look at molecular biology.
KRULWICH: Well, except you know how scientists are. So, you know, 18 scientists went yay! Apparently, we can have life with arsenic. And then seven and then nine and then 11 said, wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. And now, people are challenging the experiment. It has not been duplicated. And - at least to my knowledge, it hasn't been duplicated just yet. So what was a hooray on Monday becomes a hmm on Thursday. And now, it's still an open question whether what was observed in that laboratory was...
CONAN: Arsenic or old lace.
CONAN: Yeah. OK.
CONAN: All right. Chris, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see - we go next - that was good, I thought. Molly(ph) is on the line, calling from Boulder, Colorado.
MOLLY (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. My question is about health care.
CONAN: Go ahead.
MOLLY: I am wondering - I have read that the clause the Republicans had labeled death panels, or essentially end-of-life planning, had been taken out of the bill in order to pass it. And I read recently that they're trying to slip it back in so as to allow for this end-of-life planning. And I'm wondering, will this derail the bill? Will this add to the opposition that is growing amongst the Republicans to take the bill down?
CONAN: Hard to imagine increasing their opposition, Julie.
ROVNER: Yeah. Well, the caller is correct on all counts. The clause was originally in the House bill. It was taken out. This was - and it is back. All of those things are correct. And basically, the administration has taken it upon their own authority to allow doctors to talk with patients as part of a new, annual wellness exam that Medicare patients will get starting in 2011, talk to - with patients about their end-of-life care. These are not, however, death panels, and they never were.
And basically - I mean, what's interesting about this is that patients can say if they want - during this conversation - that, I want every form of care at the end of life. This is the chance to do exactly the opposite. This is purely for patients to express their desires with their physicians - or at least, for physicians to say: Do you have planning for your end-of-life care? Do you have an advanced directive? Have you spoken with a family member? Do you have something on a piece of paper to say what you wanted? It's not - it has absolutely nothing to do with a death panel. And this was certainly - actually, always within the power of the Medicare officials to do anyway. So it wasn't really something that needed to be in the law for them to do.
MOLLY: Well, I support it. And I think it's, you know, an excellent idea, especially when you face some serious health concerns. I have a serious health concern, and it's something that I have to face. It's just that I don't want that to add any power to the efforts to derail this bill when, you know, so much work was put into getting it passed.
CONAN: Molly, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
MOLLY: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich. You just heard NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Julie, just to follow up, the opposition is manifesting itself right now in two different arenas. We've heard about the court cases, which are proceeding - two decided on the administration's favor; one decided in the attorney general's favor; this case, the state of Virginia. We're still waiting the big one, from the state of Florida. It's also in Congress, where de-funding of health care is the issue. Now, Republicans control the House of Representatives.
ROVNER: That's right. And of course, the appropriations bills - by the Constitution - must begin in the House of Representatives. So they're going to attempt to - try and de-fund this legislation, but that's going to be difficult because most of the big funding is actually built into the law. So they really can't do as much de-funding as they would like. They can sort of take stuff around the edges but, of course, that would have to go through the Senate. And the Senate, now still controlled by Democrats, is likely to say no. So basically, what you're looking at in this de-funding effort is more of a standoff that could end up closing down the government - which could happen, but the Republicans say they don't want that. So it's not going to be quite as easy to undo this as the Republicans would like to think that it is.
CONAN: And Robert, let's turn to you. Other than - I imagine you're already working on a slinky, and that's how you're going to get the idea of the expression of the - shape of the galaxy. But what other stories are you working on?
KRULWICH: Right now, I'm a little bit obsessed by a worldwide gang war between two groups of Argentinean ants. Both groups started in Buenos Aires. Both migrated out from Buenos Aires. They turned out to be great hitchhikers. Some of them went to North America, and then they were followed by the other group. Some of them went to Spain. They were followed by the other group. Some of them then went to New Zealand. They were followed by the other group. Some of them went to Australia. Same thing.
This single group of Argentinean ants divided into sort of a - gosh, kind of like the Jets and the Sharks from "West Side Story." They're fighting each other everywhere, and they're eliminating all the local ants as they do so. So you can walk in California, for example, along a city street - actually, you know, a suburban street, and on one side, there will be a community of ants that stretches from where you're standing all the way up to Davis, California, and all the way down into New Mexico - and down further.
And if you take an ant from the wrong team and drop it on one side of the road, that ant will be pulled apart and devoured. If, however, you drop it on the other side of the road, it will be welcomed happily as a sister and say - hey, what do you want to do? What do you want to eat? There are extraordinarily rich territories of fiercely opposing ants sitting underneath our shrubs, in our lawns, all over the world - and they fight everywhere.
I was talking to a person in Barcelona the other day who said that one gang had gotten into her bell. They had decided - these are - there's a lot of reasons why they're so good at expanding and exploring the world, but they'd gotten into the doorbell. So they were in the doorbell, and as they scurried about, they kept ringing the doorbell. And she had to eliminate these ants and found them incredibly difficult to remove. All the while, they kept going ding-dong, ding-dong...
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: ...in Spanish, of course.
CONAN: Of course.
KRULWICH: So I'm thinking wow, what a tale this is. And everywhere I go, there are - this is a dynamic war, so these ants can sometimes take a territory and sometimes lose the territory. So you can be, you know, in - near Santa - near - I don't know, near San Diego, and you can be in one ant territory. And then the next year, you're just - it's moved a block away, but you wouldn't know. This is a war going on underneath us and all around us. And I find that fascinating.
CONAN: She had da-da-da-da.
(Soundbite of fingers snapping to West Side Story theme)
CONAN: Da-da, you know?
KRULWICH: It's just like that, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: And that it's going on in, you know, near Hiroshima is just weird.
CONAN: NPR science correspondent...
KRULWICH: Tell Jerry Robbins to do a ballet near here.
CONAN: We will.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Science correspondent Robert Krulwich, with us from our snowed-in bureau in New York; and Julie Rovner, who's covering the - well, I guess less-aggressive battle between Republicans and Democrats on health care. She joined us here...
ROVNER: Not much less.
CONAN: ...in Studio 3 A. Coming up, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston with us. If you have questions for Dina about her reporting this past year, stay with us. This is NPR News.
We've been asking NPR reporters to look back through their notebooks as we wrap up 2010. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has had a busy year as threats and tactics continue to evolve - from underwear and mail bombs to homegrown terrorists. What story from Dina interested you this past year? Who did she talk to that you were interested in; 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
In November, Dina reported on the animosity some Guantanamo detainees have toward the United States. She brought us the chilling poetry of a British citizen who had been held at Guantanamo, and had been released.
Mr. MOAZZAM BEGG: I can tell you I penned a poem in Guantanamo Bay called "Indictment USA."
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: That's former detainee Moazzam Begg. Just this week, he was among the former Guantanamo prisoners to whom the British government promised compensation. In an interview with NPR last year, he recited a poem that offers a glimpse of how someone in his position might see America.
Mr. BEGG: The last verses are like this: They suffered an atrocity and want us all to pay, but I wish no proximity to such a USA. Vulgarity is not my style, but still I have to say, this occasion causes me to revile, so (bleep) the USA.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston joins us now from her home in New York City. Dina, always nice to have you on the program.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I know Robert Krulwich is hardier than I am. He got through the snow.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, maybe he lives a little closer to the bureau.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Let's go with that.
CONAN: OK. You've been reporting all year on terror threats popping up around the globe. Just a year ago - obviously - on the effort of a man from Nigeria via Yemen, trying to blow up an airliner over Detroit. Today, news out of Morocco.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Of all places. I know; exactly. There were six people who were arrested in Morocco - apparently, some men with explosives expertise. And we don't know an awful lot about it yet. But apparently, they got this explosives expertise from the Internet, and they were planning car bombings around Europe.
It's really difficult to tell whether or not this is the kind of expertise that doesn't really blow up, or the kind of expertise where they actually learned how to make a bomb. Apparently, they were arrested about two weeks ago, and we're only learning about it now.
CONAN: And so we will have to sit and wait. But so far, at least from what I've seen on the wires, this is all pretty murky; these people have not been identified, really.
TEMPLE-RASTON: They haven't been identified. We don't know if they're aspirational terrorists, which means that they were talking big, or they were operational terrorists, which means they actually knew what they were doing. And then just last Friday in the U.K., the largest British anti-terror raid in two years happened. They arrested 12 people, and they released three. But now, they've charged nine - earlier today.
And I'm hearing from my sources that the London Stock Exchange and the U.S. embassy in London were among the targets that these people were allegedly looking at. But it's hard to tell how far along these plots actually were - whether this was something imminent, or something that they stepped into because they didn't want it to get any further.
CONAN: And hard to know what to make out of a story we saw from Somalia today. This - one of the leaders of al-Shabab - the group you've been reporting on for some time now - saying that if - unless Barack Obama converts to Islam, the group will start targeting the United States.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. There's - actually, what's interesting about al-Shabab is, there are different factions of it. I think we tend think that these terrorist groups are all of a piece. And much more often, they tend to splinter. And there's a part of al-Shabab that is very intent on sort of focusing on what they call the global jihad, or the global violent jihad. And then there's another group that just wants to stick to its knitting down in Somalia and trying to overthrow the transitional government there. So not all - first of all, we know that President Obama is not going to convert to Islam; but second of all, I think that this is just another indication that this group is splintering into various factions.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston with us from our bureau - excuse me, from her home in New York - though it sounds like a very good line - 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff(ph) calling us on the line from Saint Paul.
JEFF (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Jeff. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFF (Caller): I more have a comment than - not a question, but I feel that we're really hyping up the perceived terrorist threat and that it's more possible that it's being up-played. And I feel that our civil rights are really coming into a type of threat, more than anything.
CONAN: Which of your civil rights do you feel under threat, Jeff?
JEFF: Oh, I mean, the full-body scanners, there's possible radiation; basically, strip searches, pat-downs. And then you've got the whole information technology sector that's exploding. There's all these fusion centers. The counterintelligence agencies in this country don't even know how many agencies there are anymore.
CONAN: Well, in terms of Jeff's first part, the searches at the airport, the full-body scanners and the alternative of pat-down, Dina Temple-Raston, that seems to be a direct response to what we mentioned a moment ago, the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit just a year ago.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. That was the...
JEFF: I understand, the need in airports, but there's just a huge explosion of intelligence gathering on the America citizens.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. I think what we're going to be seeing in the next year, that I think people are maybe finding worrisome, is going to be a lot more of these cases like the Portland tree-lighting case - the one we saw in Oregon a couple of weeks ago where basically, there was a young Somali kid who was in the middle of an FBI sting operation. And he thought he was actually going to blow up a car bomb at this particular Christmas tree lighting.
And this is something, I'm understanding from my sources, this kind of operation - this kind of sting operation is something that we're going to be seeing a lot of next year. And I think there are going to be a lot of people who are worried about entrapment and their civil liberties, in that respect.
JEFF: Correct, yes.
CONAN: And Jeff also brings up the point about the amount of electronic surveillance, and the sweeps of communications, that some agencies seemed to be engaged in, which does not seem to have stopped. Indeed, there's some reports that we're seeing more and more complicated requests to the FISA court in Washington, D.C., that overlooks questionable searches.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, indeed. I mean, I will say, though, that in reporting out these various plots, or things that were going to happen in the United States, over the past couple of years - that one of the ways that is a very early indicator for the FBI to try and find someone who, for example, is going to travel to Pakistan to get training and come back to the United States and potentially attack here, is through the Internet, and through these chat rooms - and monitoring chat rooms. And they've ended up being a really good early warning indicator for the FBI. So I'm not sure we want to take that tool away from them.
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can go next to - this is David, and David is with us on the line from Scottsdale.
DAVID (Caller): Hello. Good show. And I always listen to NPR and various other news sources regarding, you know, counterterrorism and stuff like that. Dina, I have a question for you. With the recent arrest in the U.K. of the suspected terrorists and stuff like that, you always see on the news and in the media that they round up people. There's no names. It's just very vague. But whereas in the U.S., the FBI and the news media always say who they've got and it was a - it's either a sting operation or something like that. When you see these cases, what do you see? What's the difference between the U.S. and the U.K. type of intelligence?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I'm not sure I see an enormous difference in intelligence. I think I do see a difference in tactic. I think that if the United States were to arrest a dozen people and then let three of them go, there will be a lot of focus on the three they let go. And in the U.K., it seems like they always cast the net wider than they need to, and they let some people go before they're actually charged. And that doesn't seemed to have the same ripple effect that it would here.
That said, I just think the - and I was with friends over Christmas who are - sort of terrorism experts from the U.K. I think the U.K. problem is really different than the U.S. problem. I think it's on a much - it's almost like terrorism on steroids compared to the homegrown terrorism problem we have here. They have a much larger group that they're trying to keep -sort of tabs on. And I think that's one of the reasons why I think the techniques are so different.
CONAN: And David, from your accent, I suspect you know this - the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain is quite a bit more broad, and gives the authorities a great deal more leeway, than similar laws do here in the United States.
DAVID: It does. I actually prefer the U.S. ones. I'm an expat, living in the U.S. now. But just overall, you know, just seeing everything in the news -that they handle it very different. It seems to be like, a big headline one day - 15 suspects, you know - with emphasis on suspects and alleged -and they're all rounded up. But you never hear anything that happens to them. You don't know if they're released, they're kept in jail, whatever. Whereas in the U.S., it's a bit more cut and dry. These have been arrested, and they're going to go to prison. And I like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's interesting because today, in fact, nine of those 12 people who were arrested last Friday appeared in court and had to answer charges. And they're going to be back in court on January 15th. And if you are listening to NPR, I promise you they will be covered on our air.
DAVID: Well, thank you very much, guys.
CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, David. Appreciate it. As you work on these stories, there is the event - there has been no successful attack in the United States since 9/11. Again, there was the Times Square bombing this year; the attempted bombing over Detroit - as we mentioned - a year ago; the case of the man who was thought to be preparing a vest to explode in the subways - all threats that have been stopped.
The perceived threat of terrorism does not seem to be - there's so much attention we pay to and obviously, there would be a huge amount if there was a successful attack. But there had - the perceived threat does not seem to accord with the amount of attention and law-enforcement power that's devoted to this issue.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Or whether or not you should have an entire correspondent dedicated to counterterrorism...
CONAN: Well, I didn't say that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
TEMPLE-RASTON: Fair enough. I mean, I will say - and I did the story, I think, a week or so ago - that to a large extent, there's been an amazing amount of luck that has prevented these sorts of attacks from happening. I spoke to bomb technicians who actually got their hands on the Abdulmutallab bomb. This is the guy who was wearing the explosives in his underwear last Christmas Day. And they have no idea why it didn't go off. They said, you know, nine out of 10 times, doing exactly what it was that he did, that explosive should've gone off.
And if - and that was a huge amount of explosives. It would've put a hole in the fuselage and certainly, would've brought down the plane - and had casualties, more than likely, on the ground. So again, that was lucky. It didn't go off correctly, whatever it was that he did. You know, when it comes to Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, he actually got bomb-making training in Pakistan. He did get a very short course and clearly, he didn't take the right notes because the bomb that he made would have not blown up in a million years. He used the wrong ingredients.
But again, he wasn't on the radar screens for U.S. intelligence. They didn't even know about him until he'd already parked the car in Times Square, and they got the VIN number on the car - and traced him that way. So in those two instances, two very big instances, it was all luck.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent for now -and the foreseeable future - with us from New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Calvin's on the line, Calvin calling from Sacramento.
CALVIN (Caller): Yeah. Dina, what's your thoughts on the current ideas of the differences between the military tribunals and the civilian criminal court system? And why aren't all these people that have been held in limbo down in Guantanamo and courts receiving their trials?
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's an excellent question. You know, we reported about a month ago that the Obama administration was mulling whether or not to actually codify indefinite detention - which essentially, would leave people in limbo for an extended period of time. And I think about a week ago, the Washington Post reported that in fact, the administration was looking at doing that through an executive order. So they wouldn't even go to Congress to try and do something on that.
This has to do with the fact that people like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, they just don't know where they would try him. And they feel there has to be some sort of legal status even if they have to make it up in order to cover him in some way.
And it's very controversial, and I don't see there being any -particularly with a Republican Congress, there being any of these Guantanamo guys coming stateside for a trial. I think it's going to be military detention or military tribunal. And these indefinite detention statutes from now on - which is difficult to believe that we could stand behind, as a country; we're supposed to be about due process.
CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Calvin.
CALVIN: You bet.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Stuart(ph), Stuart with us from Tulsa.
STUART (Caller): Hi. Neal had mentioned that there hasn't a successful attack since September 11, and I was wondering if they still believe the Fort Hood shooting was related to al-Qaida, or if that would be considered a terrorist attack.
CONAN: It's a good point.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it depends - yeah, it kind of depends how you think of related to al-Qaida. We certainly know that in the Fort Hood case -and again, he still needs to go to trial for this. But we certainly understand that he had some contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, who is this radical cleric who is associated now with al-Qaida's arm in Yemen.
I think that's where we see the connection. As in terms of having al-Qaida actually send him out to do something, I don't think that we're going to see that.
STUART: I see.
CONAN: Stuart, thanks. It's a good point, though. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
STUART: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: And Dina Temple-Raston, you're looking ahead, I'm sure, to stories over the next year. Where do you think you're going to be reporting?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I think there's going to be a lot of reporting on going forward on more sting operations like this Portland Christmas tree case. I think the FBI is trying to tear a page out of the playbook, in the effort that they tried to fight the Klan so many years ago. And basically, the Klan got so paranoid that the FBI was everywhere, that it sort of collapsed on itself.
And what we're now starting to see in jihadi chat rooms is the same kind of paranoia - you know, like lists of how to tell an FBI agent might be trying to set you up. And so I'm going to be working a lot on that this year. And I expect to be doing a bunch of stories about what it's like to be Muslim in America. So I'm expecting a really busy year, and I'm actually really excited for it to start.
CONAN: And not just the Portland case, but also a case in Maryland: the attempted bombing - or the thought about an attempted bombing - at an Army recruitment center; same kind of a deal.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, or the - or even the Maryland, the D.C. subway bomber plot as well. So there are a lot of things like that that we've seen sort of towards in the end of the year, and I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of them next year.
CONAN: Dina, thanks - as always - for your time. And we wish you a wonderful holiday season.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.
CONAN: NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Reston, with us from her home in New York. You can find links to all of her stories that she's done this past year - from Dina as well as our other correspondents -at npr.org. That's our website.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: More than 2 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Their treatment after they leave the military comes under the Veterans Administration. Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the VA, joins us to take calls from American veterans, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION...TEXT: I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.
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