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News Brief: Shooting Probe, Iran Nuclear Site, Russia-Ukraine Tensions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Protest over a police shooting in Brooklyn Center, Minn., has spread far beyond the confines of that Minneapolis suburb.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Protesters defied curfews in four counties last night. One large group gathered outside of the Brooklyn Center Police Department. The police chief has called the death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright an accident. Yesterday, the chief played body camera footage of the traffic stop that led to his death. The woman who shot and killed him is a 26-year veteran of the police force.

INSKEEP: NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Minneapolis with the latest. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Chronology becomes really important here. We just go through this incident again and again as we learn more details and put them in order. So based on what we know now, what happened, in what order?

FADEL: Well, Daunte Wright was pulled over for expired tags on his car. Police found an arrest warrant related to misdemeanor charges. Body camera footage showed two police officers standing at each side of his car. One officer asks him to get out of the car and begins handcuffing him. Then a third police officer walks up. Wright tries to get back in the car. The third officer pulls her gun. And then we hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM POTTER: Taser, Taser, Taser. [Expletive]. I just shot him.

FADEL: She shoots Wright. The car lunges forward with Wright in the car still and his girlfriend as well. And as you mentioned, the Brooklyn Center police chief, Tim Gannon, said he believed Wright's shooting was an accidental discharge. He also said no gun was found in the car. Wright's death was ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner. And the cause - a gunshot wound to the chest.

INSKEEP: It was a little hard to hear that video, so I just want to say out loud - and I guess this is the reason the police chief would say it would be an accident - you hear the officer say Taser, Taser, Taser, but then obviously a Taser was not the weapon in her hand. Now, who was the officer with that weapon in her hand?

FADEL: She was identified by authorities as Kim Potter. She's been at the Brooklyn Center Police Department for 26 years. So she's senior, not a rookie. And she's on administrative leave as Wright's killing is investigated. And I should note, the mayor of Brooklyn Center, Mike Elliot, made it clear he believes she should be fired.

INSKEEP: Noel mentioned the protests in four different counties. What's the situation now?

FADEL: Well, this morning, there's calm after a night of police clashing with a group of protesters outside the Brooklyn Center police station. Law enforcement leaders say they arrested 40 people there. Looting across the Twin Cities was described as limited, sporadic; protests largely peaceful. And since Wright's killing, there's been this palpable sense of anger and grief. On the corner where 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed on Sunday, his mother, Katie Wright, stood and wept. She was surrounded by hundreds in a vigil for her son, the father of a 2-year-old child. Then she spoke of her son's smile. She described it as angelic. She said he was funny, that he lit up the room when he walked in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE WRIGHT: And I just need everyone to know that he was my life. He was my son. And I can never get that back because of a mistake, because of an accident.

FADEL: She stopped speaking when she couldn't hold back her tears.

INSKEEP: Leila, some people will know that you're already in Minneapolis because you've been covering the trial about another police killing, the killing of George Floyd, for which ex-officer Derek Chauvin is accused of murder. What happens in that case today?

FADEL: Today, the defense is expected to begin their case after the prosecution rests. So residents of the greater Twin Cities are thinking about two police-involved killings of Black men less than a year apart, as the man accused of murdering Floyd is back in court again today. And that's not lost on Alicia D. Smith. I met her at that vigil last night. She has a 7-year-old son, 12-year-old son, and she worries about the day they're seen as a threat because they're Black. She says right now, it feels like suffocating.

ALICIA D SMITH: Black people can't take anymore. We can't bear the responsibility of the change of the system that must occur for us to be acknowledged and be able to exist as humans.

FADEL: Steve, at that vigil just before curfew, there was this sense of heaviness, a feeling of desperation, anger, and then people broke off, some to go home and others to protest.

INSKEEP: Leila, glad you're there to listen. Thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Is Israel working to disrupt talks with Iran and other countries to revive a 2015 nuclear deal?

KING: One of Iran's largest nuclear sites was sabotaged on Sunday right as Iran is set to resume indirect talks with the United States. Now, Israel has long opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and Israeli media is quoting unnamed sources saying the country's intelligence agency, the Mossad, played a role.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Jerusalem. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so there are these media reports. Is it just widely assumed that it would be Israel in a circumstance like this?

ESTRIN: This time, Israel seems to have taken the credit, at least anonymously - Israeli officials speaking to some media outlets. And it's unusual because Israel usually doesn't take credit like this like when there have been other similar attacks that seem to have Israeli fingerprints, like the assassination of Iranian scientists. And some in Israel speculate this leak in the media was the work of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he may wish to kind of heighten the Iran issue now. He's struggling to hold on to power. It creates this kind of sense of emergency and urgency that could help him form a new government. And it happened as the U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, was in Israel. And we don't know if this attack came as a surprise to the U.S. The White House only says it had no involvement.

INSKEEP: The timing is interesting, although there are many ways to read it, because the United States just days ago resumed or began indirect talks, as they were, with Iran talking through European and other allies to Iran about rejoining this nuclear deal. Of course, it's a moment when the world was concerned about Iran increasing its nuclear activity again. So we can't say for sure this is an effort to disrupt the deal. But is it possible that Israel was trying somehow to spoil that?

ESTRIN: Well, what we do know is that the Israelis are opposed to returning to the original nuclear deal. They're opposed also to lifting sanctions on Iran. They don't want to boost Iran. Iran supports Israel's enemies, whether that's Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza. Now, the attack on the nuclear facility now has reportedly set back Iran's ability to enrich uranium there. And an Israeli defense official told me, see, now it's not as urgent to return to the old nuclear deal. There's - now we've got time to work out a different strategy. The thing is, though, Steve, both Iran and the U.S. do seem to want to keep diplomacy on track. Iran's foreign minister today claimed the attack will only strengthen Iran's position in the nuclear negotiations. And the White House just kind of wants to get back to the Iranian original nuclear agreements to kind of put this issue in a box so it can focus on other issues like China and Russia. And actually, this attack may speed up diplomacy with Iran. I spoke with Obama's former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and he told me in the original nuclear talks, this fear of an Israeli attack was a kind of motivator to make diplomacy work. Like, the U.S. would say, you know, we better get a deal here because you never know what the Israelis will do.

INSKEEP: Daniel, we've got just a few seconds, but what kind of relationship does Benjamin Netanyahu have with the new U.S. president?

ESTRIN: It's kind of a relationship - a work in progress. I mean, we know that Israel and the U.S. are holding talks on Iran. We know Netanyahu is capable of openly countering a U.S. president on Iran like he did during the Obama administration. He went against the nuclear deal. He spoke in Congress. But Netanyahu may face a choice here. If he wants to have input on these nuclear negotiations, he can't work against the U.S.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Russia has been building up military forces on its border with Ukraine.

KING: Yes. And this has observers worried that Russia may be getting ready to invade Ukraine again. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

ANTONY BLINKEN: President Biden has been very clear about this. If Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs. There will be consequences.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is covering this story from Moscow. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's Russia doing?

KIM: Well, the Ukrainian government says there are 40,000 Russian troops on the border with eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 Russian troops in Crimea, which Russia seized seven years ago. What's interesting is that the Russian government is not denying there's a buildup. The Kremlin says it's nobody's business where Russian troops go within Russia's borders and that Russia doesn't threaten anybody. The fact this is all happening in plain sight makes some analysts think that Russia is not planning an attack but only doing some saber-rattling to intimidate the Ukrainians and also to send a message to the Biden administration that Russia is still a force it needs to reckon with. Let's remember that for the past seven years, there's been this low-level war in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists. Now Russia is warning that if Ukraine tries to take back that territory it lost, it faces an all-out war and even the loss of its statehood.

INSKEEP: Well, what would Russia gain from further intervention in Ukraine if it were to try that?

KIM: Well, there's a lot of speculation about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin really wants an intervention. Putin does have motives to escalate the situation but then to step back at the last moment. An escalation distracts people from things going on inside Russia, like the poor state of the Russian economy or the imprisonment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Steve, the fact we're having this conversation at all and not talking about Navalny is a case in point. But there are also analysts who believe Putin may think relations with the West are so bad he has nothing to lose by invading. One thing everybody agrees on is that everything depends on Putin alone. Here's political commentator Ivan Yakovina speaking on Ukrainian TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVAN YAKOVINA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He's saying that Putin almost always makes the most irrational decision as long as it strengthens his power. He says he doesn't think Putin has made up his mind yet and that a key date for more clues will be Putin's State of the Nation speech next week.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking, Western countries have again told Russia they should back off. The United States has warned Russia, but they've warned Russia before and Russia has done what it wants to do. What can the West do now?

KIM: Well, that's the thing. Both the U.S. and NATO have pledged their support for Ukraine, but, of course, Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance. So just as in 2014 when Russia first invaded, Putin can be pretty sure that Western countries will not risk going to war with Russia over Ukraine and that he basically has a free hand. The one thing the West can do is impose sanctions that would target Russia's banking sector. That would be a catastrophe for Russia. But many people here think that Putin has decided those sanctions will come sooner or later anyway.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks for the insights.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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