Child Tax Credit, Nassar Investigation Failings, Iranian Kidnapping Plot: News You Need To Start Your Day

WICT Leadership Conference - Day 2
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Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad has been named by federal prosecutors as the target of an alleged Iranian kidnapping plot. She responded to that in a conversation with NPR this morning.

Good morning — we hope you're doing well. We're reporting on a number of important stories for you. Here's what we know:

— The Morning Edition live blog team
Rachel Treisman, Arielle Retting and William Jones

International
'I Have Only One Life:' Iranian American Journalist Masih Alinejad On Being The Target Of An Alleged Kidnapping Plot
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Masih Alinejad stands at a clear podium on a stage, looking to the left and smiling.
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Masih Alinejad pictured speaking onstage at Tina Brown's 7th Annual Women in the World Summit in New York City in April 2016.

Federal prosecutors in New York charged five foreign agents in an alleged plot to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist who reports on the regime's human rights abuses from her home in Brooklyn.

Masih Alinejad fled Iran in 2009, and is now a U.S. citizen.

As NPR's Steve Inskeep explains, the federal indictment says Iranian intelligence agents spied on her home, tried to pay her family to lure her out of the country and researched speedboats and maritime routes to slip her out of New York. Iran has denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI told Alinejad eight months ago that she was the target of the alleged scheme and under surveillance. She described the challenges of that period in an interview with NPR this morning, noting she was traveling between safe houses and away from her beloved garden.

"The problem is they want to create fear, they want you to live in fear and paranoia. I managed to defeat that. I became more determined, I became more powerful actually to give voice to voiceless people because I said that I have only one life, and I don't want to die in fear and paranoia."
Masih Alinejad, Iranian-American journalist

Alinejad noted that like many dissident journalists, activists and women, she left Iran to feel safe to do her job. She's a journalist, she added, not a criminal.

So why was she targeted? Alinejad, who has a large social media following, thinks the Iranian government is scared of the people who risk imprisonment by sending her videos of themselves practicing civil disobedience.

And she's blunt about what she believes would have happened to her if the alleged kidnapping plot had succeeded: "It's just obvious that they were going to execute me."

Listen to her full conversation with Inskeep here.

American Rescue Plan
The First Child Tax Credit Payments Are Going Out Today
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If you have kids under the age of 18, you'll likely soon be getting cash from the federal government.

That's because the first monthly payments under the expanded child tax credit will begin rolling out to millions of families across the U.S. today.

The program increases the existing tax benefit — only for the 2021 tax year — from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under six and $3,000 for those six and up, though there are income limits. It's part of the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan, which was passed in March.

So how does it actually work? Check out this handy guide from NPR's Vanessa Romo.

An adult holding a cardboard sign and a child draw on a sidewalk in colorful pink, blue and red chalk, reading "Thank You For Child Checks."
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for ParentsTogether
Supporters of the new monthly child tax credit payments draw with chalk outside the Brooklyn, New York home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday.

As labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu explains on Morning Edition:

  • What's going out today is an advance payment of the tax credit. Instead of getting a one-time lump sum later, families will get half spread out over 6 months and half when they file taxes next year (unless they'd like to opt out and get the full sum next year instead).
  • Most people don't have to take any action to receive these payments, since the government can deduce how much it owes and send that money via check or direct deposit. If your family doesn't earn enough money to file taxes, you can register online.
  • Experts estimate the expanded tax credit will contribute to five million kids being lifted out of poverty, which would cut child poverty in half. President Biden would need support from Congress to sustain it beyond one year.
Law Enforcement
Biden's Nominee To Head ICE Has Tangled Publicly With The Agency
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Voters Cast Ballots In The Texas Primary Election
Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez speaking to voters outside a polling station, as he was seeking reelection on March 3, 2020. Gonzalez is President Biden's pick to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

President Biden’s nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will face questions from a Senate committee today.

Biden has tapped Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who runs one of the country’s biggest jails in Houston, to run the agency.

ICE became the public face of former President Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Now, the Biden administration wants to overhaul the agency.

Gonzales was a vocal critic of ICE back in 2019 when immigrant detention centers were overflowing and Trump was threatening massive deportation raids.

Those raids turned out to be more hype than reality, partly because of opposition from law enforcement leaders like Gonzales.

"I want to use the resources that we have to address real crimes that are happening in our community," he said at the time.

And when he was running for sheriff in 2016, Gonzalez told Houston Public Media that he opposed the aggressive tactics that other sheriffs had adopted to arrest undocumented immigrants:

"It leads to the potential for racial profiling. It potentially splits families. It doesn't make us any safer because in many ways it diminishes the trust and respect that could occur between law enforcement and the community."
- Ed Gonzalez, President Biden's nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Gonzales' nomination comes at a moment of turmoil inside ICE. You can read more about that turmoil and what his nomination could mean for the future of ICE under the Biden administration.

Housing And Homelessness
States Leased Hotel Rooms For Unhoused Residents During The Pandemic, But California Is Buying Them
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A woman wearing a pink bandana on her head bends down over her walker outside one of two identical hotel room doors.
Erin Baldassari/KQED
Michele Griffin-Young, 73, moved into the Casa Buena hotel in February of this year. The Casa Buena is an 18-unit motel in Corte Madera, a small suburb north of San Francisco. It is one of 94 Homekey sites, a California program to convert hotels, motels and other buildings into permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.

When the pandemic hit, states scrambled to find shelters for people experiencing homelessness. They received federal assistance to lease out hotel and motel rooms — but only on a temporary basis.

As KQED’s Erin Baldassari explains, officials in California launched “Homekey” last June to buy some of these hotels and turn them into permanent housing.

The idea had been discussed for years before COVID-19 hit, according to Jason Elliott, who works on housing policy for California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Everyone always says 'I wish we could.' And the pandemic provided us with an opportunity to go from ‘I wish we could’ to ‘We will.’”
Jason Elliott, senior counselor to California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Elliott says Homekey created enough housing for more than 8,000 people across 94 sites in less than a year.

And other states across the country could soon be following suit.

Washington state, Oregon and the city of Baltimore have already taken similar steps, and Congress recently approved $5 billion to turn hotels into housing.

Baldassari spoke with California residents, like Michele Griffin-Young, about what these efforts mean to them.

The 73-year-old had been living in her car with her diabetic son before the pandemic, and says their hotel room was a lifeline — bringing them a refrigerator for insulin and more time to spend together — as her son's health was failing.

"And I just can't tell you how much it helped to keep us going as long as we did. It was really incredible."
Michele Griffin-Young of Marin County, California

🎧 Listen to Baldassari's powerful reporting here.

Just In
NPR Newscast
Deadly Flooding In Germany Leaves Villages Inaccessible And Residents Stranded
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Storm in Rhineland-Palatinate
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Police officers look at the flooding damage in the district of Ahrweiler after the storm and the floods.

Devastating flooding is inundating parts of Germany and Belgium. As Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin, at least 33 people have been killed and dozens of others are missing.

A state of emergency has been declared in the hilly Eifel region in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate after more than two months' worth of rain fell in less than 24 hours.

With roads flooded, several villages in the region are no longer accessible. Many residents are waiting to be evacuated from their rooftops.

And with more continuous downpour expected today and tomorrow, the German army is being deployed to help with rescue efforts.

Music News
Britney Spears Can Now Hire Her Own Lawyer To Fight Her Conservatorship
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Several people stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial holding megaphones and pink signs with slogans including "Britney's Not A Slave 4 U!" and "Free Britney."
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Supporters of Britney Spears held a #FreeBritney rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

We're following some new developments in Britney Spears' fight against her controversial conservatorship.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge cleared Spears yesterday to hire her own lawyer, and she's picked a prominent Hollywood attorney and former federal prosecutor.

The judge also approved the resignation of Samuel D. Ingham III, Spears' longtime court-appointed lawyer, and the wealth management company Bessemer Trust — leaving her father, Jamie Spears, as the sole conservator of her financial affairs.

At yesterday's hearing, Spears accused her father of conservatorship abuse and reiterated that she wants him removed from the legal arrangement.

And the judge's decision may mean she's one step closer. It's being celebrated by disability rights organizations and the growing #FreeBritney movement as a victory.

"This likely marks the beginning of the full-force effort to end Spears' conservatorship," writes NPR's Andrew Limbong and reporter Aaron Schrank.

🎧 Limbong spoke to Morning Edition about what these developments mean for Spears, and the larger questions they raise about legal conservatorships and guardianships. Listen here.

ICYMI
Animal Kingdom
Please Watch Thousands Of Fish Fly From A Plane Into A Utah Lake
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Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources is on a mission to restock 200 high-elevation lakes across the state — by dumping planes of fish into them from above.

The agency recently released footage of a plane releasing fish into a lake in the Boulder Mountain region last week. And it's really something.

Apparently, the plane holds hundreds of pounds of water and can drop 35,000 fish in a single flight.

"The fish are between 1-3 inches long, so they flutter down slowly to the water,” the agency wrote on Facebook.

We wouldn't call the journey relaxing, though:

National
A New Report Says The FBI Mishandled Larry Nassar’s Abuse Investigation
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FBI field agents failed to respond to sexual assault allegations against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar with the seriousness and urgency they deserved, a Justice Department inspector general report says.

Nassar eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges involving gymnasts and others, many of them minors. But it took years to catch Nassar. By the time of his sentencing, more than 150 women testified against him.

NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been digging through this report. She says that:

We now know that the leader of USA Gymnastics approached the FBI in 2015 about concerns that Nassar was engaging in sexual abuse of young gymnasts. But the FBI in Indianapolis did very little, according to this new report. In 2015 they interviewed one victim, only by phone. They failed to contact two other victims. And after that they did nothing for eight months. Ultimately state authorities in Michigan were the ones who pursued him, and he was charged in 2016.

There's only one person named in the report. That person is W. Jay Abbott, and he was running the FBI's field office in Indianapolis at the time. The inspector general says he made false statements about what he did and didn't do, and that he misled reporters who started to ask questions. The report also says that Abbott was in talks for a big job with the U.S. Olympic Committee as the chief security officer. This was after the Indiana office decided to take no action, but while the Nassar investigation was still with the FBI. The Justice Department has declined to prosecute him despite the findings. He retired from the bureau in 2018.

Member station Michigan Radio has more details on the mishandled investigation.

Health
Check Your Beach Bags For These Sunscreens Recalled For Traces Of Carcinogens
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Take a second to double check your aerosol sunscreens next time you head to the beach or pool. Johnson & Johnson has recalled five of them after the company discovered trace amounts of benzene, a carcinogen, in some samples.

Only Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol sunscreens are affected by the recall, and consumers should stop using these canisters.

The products being recalled are:

  • NEUTROGENA Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen
  • NEUTROGENA Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
  • NEUTROGENA Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
  • NEUTROGENA Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
  • AVEENO Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen

All sizes and SPF levels of these products are included.

Benzene is not an ingredient used in the sunscreens. The company said it's reviewing how the chemical might have gotten into certain samples.

Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause leukemia or other cancers. However, Johnson & Johnson said the levels of benzene detected in the tests done on the sunscreens would "not be expected to cause adverse health consequences" and that the recall was issued out of an abundance of caution.

Arts
Oakland's First Poet Laureate Wants To 'Shatter Your Illusions Of What Poetry Is'
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Dr. Ayodele Nzinga.jpg
The Lower Bottom Playaz
Ayodele Nzinga is Oakland's First Poet Laureate

When Oakland, Calif. began a search for its first-ever poet laureate, finding a master wordsmith wasn't enough. The city was looking for an artist who was on the ground and deeply integrated in Oakland's community.

The winner hasn't just written about Oakland. She's a part of Oakland's history. Dr. Ayodele “WordSlanger” Nzinga is a musician, essayist and founder of one of Oakland's oldest theater companies.

One of Nzinga's first tasks will be to write a poem that commemorates the whole city. It won't be her first.

"I have spent a lot of time talking about Oakland," she says. “This is a place where people came to be free, when they left the South with nothing, freed into nothing, leaving with nothing."

Nzinga says she wants to "shatter your illusions of what poetry is," and for her, helping Oaklanders understand the city through her writing starts with a little tough love.

"I've been known to rattle a cage or two. To say what people think but don't say in polite company," Nzinga says. "So it feels right that Oakland, with its history of connection to the Black arts movement, which supported the Black Power movement, pushing the envelope, that I could be its poet laureate"

The theme of belonging was important to the selection committee’s criteria for finding the winner. That's also at the forefront of Nzinga's mind.

“When you ask me about home, I don't think we've ever had a resting place since they took us off the ships. The story of gentrification is the story of being a placeholder until the space is more convenient to someone who has the resources to use it. I don’t know why I feel so emotional about this this morning. I am fighting back, literally, tears. I think that, in this moment, we don't all understand how beautiful and important the struggle song of Oakland is to liberation around the world.”
Ayodele Nzinga, Oakland's poet laureate

Nzinga will kick off her two-year term as poet laureate with an inaugural address in September.

Listen to the story or click here to read more about her background and her poetry.

International
The Investigation Into The Assassination Of Haiti's President Is Examining His Security Detail
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
A mural in Port-au-Prince. Investigators in Haiti's capital are probing the assassinated president's security detail.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. He reports that the head of security at the Haitian presidential palace has been taken into custody as part of the investigation into the assassination of Jovenel Moïse.

Other top officials in charge of protecting the president have also been removed. And the big question is how the president could be killed and yet none of his security detail even injured.

Meanwhile, two rival politicians are continuing to jockey for power. Claude Joseph, who was the acting prime minister at the time of the assassination, is still making the most vigorous assertion that he is the head of state.

But Moïse had fired Joseph and was about to replace him with Ariel Henry. And Henry has now held a press conference to announce his new government.

 Supporters of Haiti's assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, have set up a memorial to him outside the presidential palace.
Jason Beaubien/NPR
Supporters of Haiti's assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, have set up a memorial outside the presidential palace.

Beaubien headed to a shrine outside the presidential palace yesterday, where supporters of the assassinated president had been gathering. You can 🎧 hear how they're responding to the killing and who they're blaming for his death.

Politics
The Ethical Implications Of Hunter Biden's Upcoming Art Show
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Hunter Biden is trying to make it as a professional painter — and drawing, in the process, a host of concerns from art critics and ethics experts.

A New York gallery is preparing to show his work in October, with the paper and canvas works priced between $75,000 and $500,000 each.

The White House has announced an arrangement for setting prices and making sales that is aimed at protecting President Biden and his son from ethical pitfalls. But, as White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, many in the worlds of art and government ethics remain skeptical.

"The president's son earned notoriety for his consulting work for a Ukrainian gas company and other business arrangements that appeared to capitalize on the Biden name. Now, as he tries to make it as a professional artist, a question lingers: Would any other comparable artist in their first gallery show fetch such high prices?"
- Tamara Keith, NPR White House correspondent

Of course, Hunter Biden isn't a government employee, and is not legally obligated to distance himself from the art sales. But his father campaigned on a platform of ethics and transparency, so the White House is under pressure.

Get the full story here.

Before You Go
Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
Lucy Dacus Previews Her Third Album From An Unusual (But Still Tiny) Desk
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For her third Tiny Desk concert, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus performs from a different kind of perch: a classroom desk at her former high school in Richmond, Va.

It's fitting, as much of her new album, Home Video, is inspired by the memories and relationships that came out of that time in her life.

"During those high school years, she met her musical mate, guitarist Jacob Blizard (seated on the right side of the screen), and the audio engineer capturing all these songs, Collin Pastore," NPR Music's Bob Boilen explains in this writeup.

School may be out for the summer, but we'll leave you with some homework — you'll probably want to bookmark this performance to watch sometime today.

Lucy Dacus: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert