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News Brief: Russia Referendum Vote, New Tool For COVID-19 Threat, Facebook Boycott


Let's refine a big question about Russian bounties on the heads of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.


The U.S. got this information about the bounties. A Russian intelligence service reportedly offered them to militants. The question is how much the president knew at the same time he was being friendly toward Russia. But there's a slightly different version of that question. How much should he have known given that the U.S. intelligence findings weren't entirely certain?

INSKEEP: Different agencies may interpret evidence differently. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre covers intelligence agencies. And he's on the line. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Based on your reporting, how strong is the evidence?

MYRE: Well, some of the reports are saying that Taliban members were captured in a raid and interrogated. And a large pile of cash was uncovered about six months ago. But the U.S. intelligence community is still assessing. And there is no consensus. And this is really a classic problem for the intelligence community. You have to put together a puzzle with missing pieces, reach an assessment. And you face pressure to do it quickly. I spoke about these challenges with Dan Hoffman. He's a former CIA officer who served as a Moscow station chief and also worked in the Middle East.

DAN HOFFMAN: I served, you know, three years in overseas combat zones collecting this sort of tactical intelligence. It's not like fine wine getting better with age. You've got to get it out to the people at risk. That means our soldiers, but also coalition forces.

INSKEEP: Do U.S. intelligence agencies agree on how to interpret the evidence they found?

MYRE: Well, we don't know for sure. But it seems there are differences. The CIA seems to be driving this, in many respects, and believes the Russian bounty program is very real. But we've seen The Wall Street Journal report that the National Security Agency has strongly dissented with this CIA assessment. Though, it's not clear exactly why.

But in the past couple of days, we've seen Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien take the highly unusual steps of issuing statements saying they can't confirm the bounty program, at least at this point. And meanwhile, we've had President Trump say he was never told about this before the story broke in the media several days ago. Though, we are now seeing reports to the contrary, that he may have been briefed as early as February.

INSKEEP: Well, now we're getting back to that question of what the president knew or what he should have known. When the information is not 100% solid - which seems like the normal situation - but it's still really serious information, is the president typically told?

MYRE: Well, Dan Hoffman, the former CIA officer, doesn't know the details in this case. But in his long experience, he said potentially explosive intelligence would and should reach the White House, including the president. Here he is again.

HOFFMAN: My concern as an intelligence officer would be, I don't want the president or his national security adviser to be blindsided when Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, hey, about that reporting we received that the Russians have a bounty out for our people in Afghanistan. You know, I wouldn't want the president not to be aware of that information.

INSKEEP: Well, when you're aware of that information, what does it tell you about Russia's apparent strategy in the region?

MYRE: Well, it certainly seems to have changed in recent years. The U.S. and Russia used to have a common interest in defeating Islamic extremism. But that has changed. In fact, our NPR colleague, Tom Bowman, was in Afghanistan four years ago. And even at that time, he was being told by the Afghan military that Russia was providing arms and training to the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre.


INSKEEP: This is the day when the ads of many big companies disappear from Facebook.

KING: Right. More than 300 companies joined a boycott. They include big ones like Target, Starbucks and Volkswagen. Some of them are going off Facebook for a month. And some of them say they'll stay off for much longer. They say that Facebook and Instagram promote hate speech. So as this boycott spread over the past few days, Facebook banned hundreds of accounts, pages and groups.

INSKEEP: We should disclose that Facebook is one of NPR's financial sponsors. We report on them like any other company all the same. And NPR's Shannon Bond is here to do exactly that. Good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note the advertisers aren't just acting alone. They were pressured to do this. Who's pushing them to get off Facebook?

BOND: A coalition of advocacy groups is urging these advertisers to pull their money from Facebook. And one of that group is Color Of Change. They're a civil rights organization. I talked to their president, Rashad Robinson. And he says Facebook has given its critics no other choice.

RASHAD ROBINSON: And this failure to address these problems have given those of us in the civil rights community, as well as corporations, only one path. And that is the path of having to pursue this boycott.

BOND: So the coalition is making 10 demands of Facebook ranging from giving advertisers their money back if their ads appear next to content that gets removed to cracking down on lies by politicians. And to be clear, not all of these advertisers that are pulling back have signed on to these exact demands. But, generally, they're concerned. They're concerned about their ads appearing on a platform that they say isn't doing enough to curb hate.

INSKEEP: How is Facebook responding to that?

BOND: Well, Facebook says it'd invest billions of dollars in keeping its platform safe through artificial intelligence and human moderators. And just yesterday, it said it banned hundreds of accounts and groups connected to the boogaloo movement. That's a loose network of far-right extremists. And that is the kind of thing advertisers want to see them doing. You know, Facebook recognizes this is a problem. Here's what its top spokesman, Nick Clegg, told CNN on Sunday.


NICK CLEGG: Facebook, we have absolutely no incentive to tolerate hate speech. We don't like it. Our users don't like it. Advertisers, understandably, don't like it.

BOND: He pointed out that over a hundred billion messages are sent on Facebook's platforms every day. And so the company does try to crack down. But it can't remove everything. And last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg did say that Facebook would make some changes, including putting warning labels on posts from politicians, like President Trump, that break its rules. And that's a huge reversal for the company. But when Zuckerberg made that announcement, he made no mention of this advertising boycott at all.

INSKEEP: Well, is this boycott a lever that can seriously move Facebook?

BOND: Well, you know, you have to look at Facebook's business, which is advertising. Advertising sales made up 99% of the company's revenue last year. But for many advertisers, you know, it's actually not that much of a choice. Facebook lets them reach, you know, specific communities, groups of people, at a fraction of the cost of, say, a broadcast commercial.

One of the biggest spenders right now is the Biden campaign. Joe Biden, who's been very vocal, critically, of Facebook. But when we asked the campaign if they would stop advertising, they said, this close to the election, they can't afford to cede these platforms to Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks very much.

BOND: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: Daily coronavirus infection rates are at an all-time high here in the United States.

KING: Yes. And Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress yesterday that it could still get much worse.


ANTHONY FAUCI: We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so I am very concerned.

KING: It's very overwhelming. And so researchers at Harvard have developed a new way for Americans to assess their individual risk of catching COVID-19. It's a tool that warns them if there's an outbreak and how big an outbreak in their community.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey has some exclusive reporting on this. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why did researchers think there was a need for a new tool?

AUBREY: Well, state dashboards that display covert stats have a lot of numbers - right? - the number of cases, number of deaths. But it's hard to know how to interpret these numbers. Here's Danielle Allen. She's a professor at Harvard. She's working with the Harvard Global Health Institute.

DANIELLE ALLEN: A big challenge has been the absence of a unified national way of presenting data and talking about how to think about risk.

AUBREY: So Allen and a big group of collaborators - these are top scientists and former public health officials at institutions around the country - have stepped in. They've developed this new tool that's being released this morning.

INSKEEP: Well, how would I use this to determine my risk in my community or just what's going on in my community?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, you go to the website, globalepidemics.org. We have a link to it on our site, npr.org. You hover over the state and county where you live. You'll see two important things, Steve. You'll see a trend line in cases over time. And you'll see a color, either green, yellow, orange or red. This is the risk level for your county. Now, this is based on how many new cases there are per 100,000 people.

And the value of tying the alert to this metric is that it's a standard way to measure the risk against the total population. You're getting kind of an apples-to-apples comparison. So here's Ellie Graeden. She's one of the collaborators on the project. She's affiliated with Georgetown University's Center for Global Health, Science and Security.

ELLIE GRAEDEN: It allows you to compare a rural area in upstate New York compared to New York City. And that's the real value of this effort. We're now communicating and all agreeing on the same basic thresholds for the types of actions that need to be taken.

INSKEEP: Green, yellow, orange or red - not very different from a stoplight. Is that the idea?

AUBREY: That's right, right? We already know what those colors mean, right? I mean, if you're in a green area, this signals that your county or state is on track to contain the virus. I should say, there are not too many places there right now - orange and yellow, where many parts of the country are.

It's really a cue to local policymakers they may need to adjust restrictions depending on the trend line. And there are specific guidance from the collaborators on steps they can take. For us, the public, it's a signal to maintain vigilance, to keep up social distancing and masking given all the numbers we're hearing today. And red is the signal that a stay-at-home order or other advisories are needed. That's the conclusion of these scientists.

INSKEEP: There must be some counties in red on this map.

AUBREY: Yes, there are. I should emphasize, it's very fluid, constantly changing. But many counties in Arizona and Florida are in the red. So if it were up to these scientists, there would be a shelter-in-place or a stay-at-home order considered there. Also 20 counties in Texas are red. If you look at the map, much of the country is in orange and yellow, as I said, a smattering of green. I should point out, one way to think about this tool is to guide your own decision-making. If you wanted to visit relatives and you use this tool, you see the county they live in is at a red alert, you may want to reconsider your plans.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can find this new tool at npr.org. That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.