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News Brief: Taliban Negotiations, Opioid Settlement, Sharpiegate

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 11:23 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So what now? For more than a year, a U.S. team led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been working on a peace deal with the Taliban in order to bring U.S. troops home. Now President Trump says those negotiations are over.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, I mean, President Trump has used this kind of absolutist language before in foreign policy - just think about North Korea - only to then reverse course. But this whole thing has complicated matters for the U.S. military. There are still 14,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Are they going? Are they staying, and if so, for how long? And what about Afghans themselves? Where is the democratically elected Afghan government in all of this?

MARTIN: We've got NPR's National Security Correspondent Greg Myre in studio this morning. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Lots of questions to answer. Let's start with the administration. Now that President Trump has called off these peace talks, what options does he have right now?

MYRE: Well, he does have options, but they're not very appealing. The U.S. military, the Afghan army, could step up attacks on the Taliban, and we've heard something to that effect in recent days. But there's no reason to believe this is going to change a war that's been stalemated for years. Now, the president doesn't need a permission slip from the Taliban to withdraw troops.

MARTIN: Right.

MYRE: He could do that unilaterally. But this would only further reduce U.S. leverage if they're trying to gain concessions from the Taliban. He could also try to restart negotiations, but this could be very difficult. I spoke about this with Dan Feldman, who was the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama.

DAN FELDMAN: There's broad, I think, political support for concluding the war. But I think you've also seen, just over the last few weeks, the series of stakeholders who are concerned about the way in which it is done.

MYRE: Now, Feldman is referring to everyone from the Afghan government, which was not included in the talks, to members of Congress - Republicans and Democrats - former U.S. military commanders and diplomats. All of them have, in their own ways, been critical.

MARTIN: I mean, it's notable that the Afghan government hasn't been involved - right? - because the Taliban wants a political solution. The U.S. can't give them that; that's got to come from the Afghan government, which is in itself in transition. There's an election coming up in Afghanistan, right?

MYRE: That's right, and it's going to be a very big test. The presidential election is set for September 28, less than three weeks away. If the government canceled this, it would look weak, not in charge; it would add to the uncertainty we're already seeing. And President Ashraf Ghani really wants a mandate and another term in office, so he's really pushing to have this election. And regular elections have been one of the achievements, one of the real signal achievements that Afghanistan can claim. So postponing it would be a setback.

But we could also be looking at a very bloody period. The Taliban may want to step up attacks to show that - what the power that they still have. You may not get a clean, decisive election here. You could have a runoff, so you could be looking at months and months of a very messy situation.

MARTIN: Tomorrow is going to mark 18 years since 9/11. Is the Taliban today different from the group that harbored al-Qaida in 2001?

MYRE: Not fundamentally. I mean, it still wants to lead a country they want to call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Some tactical changes. They don't want to lead a bankrupt, isolated country. But they still want to lead a country under Sharia law.

MARTIN: Which would be a difference from the democratically elected government there. So what about the troops? An estimated 14,000 American troops are on the ground in Afghanistan. Are they clear on their mandate right now?

MYRE: Their mandate hasn't changed, and they provide these very important functions of air power to go after the Taliban, intelligence - things the Afghans can't do on them - their selves. But they are facing a very difficult period where we could see stepped-up violence. So the mandate hasn't changed, but it's a very risky period we're entering.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Myre for us this morning. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Next, an NPR exclusive about the high-stakes settlement talks involving Purdue Pharma, which is the maker of OxyContin.

GREENE: Right. So yesterday we told you that state officials are demanding compensation for the company's role in the deadly opioid epidemic. Those negotiations had reached a standstill, and it looked like the company was going to declare bankruptcy. Well, now, for the first time, the company is offering details of its offer to pay out billions of dollars to help communities struggling with the addiction crisis.

MARTIN: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has been reporting on this and joins us now. So you've got the story, Brian. You've been in contact with Purdue Pharma. What have you learned?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. So, you know, we've been reporting on these national talks, and Purdue Pharma has refused to give interviews or answer questions. And then yesterday, Rachel, after we talked about this here on Up First, the company suddenly sent an email to NPR. And for the first time, they and their owners, the Sackler family, outlined publicly what they're offering to essentially cap their liability and resolve all these lawsuits in one big deal.

And here's what they say - the Sacklers are offering to give up the entire value of their main company, Purdue Pharma. It's a company with annual revenues around $3 billion. They've also offered another $3 billion in cash. And they say they would forfeit income from the sale of an overseas subsidiary called Mundipharma, which they claim is worth another $1.5 billion.

MARTIN: So until now the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma, in general, they've declined to comment, confirm any of the details, as you've noted. Why are they sharing now?

MANN: Yeah, the company's pretty clear in this email that they're offering details in order to dispute an account of these really contentious settlement talks given by state attorneys general over the weekend. Those government officials who are suing Purdue Pharma told NPR that they demanded guarantees from the Sacklers, that at least $4.5 billion would come from their personal wealth. In other words, they want any settlements to drain some of this huge private fortune the family amassed by selling opioids. The attorneys general said the Sacklers declined to make that commitment. And here's what North Carolina's Attorney General Josh Stein said yesterday here on the podcast.

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JOSH STEIN: We needed more security on the part of the Sacklers that the money that they were pledging they would, in fact, pay. And we didn't have that commitment, and the Sacklers rejected those proposals.

MANN: But in this email to NPR, a top Purdue Pharma official, Josephine Martin, pushed back against Stein, arguing that all the assets being offered in this settlement are privately owned by the Sackler family and their members.

MARTIN: Why does it matter, though, Brian? I mean, if there's settlement money on the table that's going to help communities that are struggling, have got a lot of people who are struggling with addiction, why does it matter if it comes from - directly from the Sacklers or from the company?

MANN: Right. So the Sacklers are one of the wealthiest families in the U.S., until recently known mostly for their philanthropy - you know, supporting museums and medical schools. But documents released over the last year have shown that they pushed hard to boost the sale of opioids, including Oxycontin, and often downplayed the risk, even as their own researchers were raising fears about the high potential for addiction and overdose deaths. And now, you know, more than 200,000 Americans have died from prescription opioid overdoses.

So government officials who are at the negotiating table here with the Sacklers, they're under a lot of pressure to show that the family is going to feel some real financial pain from this process. The Sacklers are saying they've offered to do that, to pay billions of dollars, but state attorneys general saying that's not enough. One question, Rachel, Purdue Pharma hasn't answered is whether they will now file for bankruptcy if some kind of deal isn't reached.

MARTIN: All right. Brian Mann with that NPR exclusive. Brian with North Country Public Radio. He covers opioid litigation. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel.

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MARTIN: Now to the seemingly never-ending saga about a president, a hurricane, the state of Alabama and an unsuspecting Sharpie.

GREENE: Right. And just in case you haven't been following Sharpie news, to recap here - President Trump insisted that Hurricane Dorian was threatening the state of Alabama. And then he held up this map which, according to reports, had been altered with a black marker to enlarge the area forecast to be hit by the storm. Now the commerce secretary has gotten involved, and the whole thing is raising questions about how this administration uses political power to protect President Trump.

MARTIN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us this morning. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So can you just explain what happened? What do we know, and what is being disputed by federal scientists?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, look - this is one of those things which actually is pretty serious right now. But putting on my media critic's hat, I'd say it started as kind of a typical Trumpest (ph) in a tweetpot (ph).

MARTIN: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it was a gaffe that might have been overcovered. If you go back to September 1, a little before 11 a.m., Trump tweets that Alabama was among the states that's going to be hit hard by, what he said, hurricane 5, you know, one of the hardest on record. Twenty minutes later, folks at the Birmingham National Weather Service said, not so; system was too far away to do damage to Alabama. It's all fine. It may well have been based on some maps showing some tropical wind gusts might hit Alabama in an outdated map.

September 4 - President Trump has that Sharpie-enhanced map. Who enhanced it? Who knows, but we do know the president loves Sharpies. And then - you know, then it gets serious. Then a rear admiral who's Trump's counterterrorism adviser comes out with statements saying he'd given the president a briefing showing that, on September 6, NOAA - which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - sends out a statement basically rebuking the Birmingham National Weather Service in Alabama, saying it was inconsistent with probabilities from best forecasts. And let's remember...

MARTIN: Saying that essentially that the president is right.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

MARTIN: You, Alabama weather officials, are wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Backing him up.

MARTIN: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: And let's remember - these are proudly scientific agencies, NOAA and the National Weather Service. It's really important they have their independence so people can make their best judgments on their safety. Businesses rely on outfits like this. And this seemed to be bent to try to prove the president right after the fact.

MARTIN: But now Wilbur Ross is involved, the commerce secretary?

FOLKENFLIK: So look - you know, what we saw on Sunday was that the acting chief scientist of NOAA, which is the parent agency of the National Weather Service, said, hey, I'm going to review whether there was any political interference.

And, yes, it appears as - there are allegations first reported by The New York Times that the commerce secretary, which is over - who is over all of this stuff, personally got involved and said, heads are going to roll at NOAA if the National Weather Service are contradicting the president. It has triggered the review by the acting chief scientist. It's triggered apparently an inspector generals - a review, you know, the question of whether or not these agencies are being allowed to operate free of partisan involvement.

MARTIN: So this is now about the president's hand-picked cabinet member pressuring federal, nonpolitical scientists at NOAA to change the facts.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the allegation. The commerce secretary has had a spokesman deny that. But I think this is also about the larger issue about whether or not the Trump administration is going to allow information long-prized by independent scientists, not partisan figures, that help to inform Americans and their institutions to help them make good decisions, whether that is going to be bent to personal pique and partisan intent in a way that, you know, cuts against how the federal government's supposed to work.

MARTIN: NPR's David Folkenflik for us on this story. David, we appreciate it. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECCA:83's "2AM SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.