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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How are some of the world's richest and most powerful people hiding their money?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A leak of almost 12 million financial documents offers answers. The documents collectively are called the Pandora Papers. They were leaked to a group of news organizations. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists coordinated the work. The documents show world leaders shoveling money overseas - the king of Jordan, for example, bought $100 million worth of luxury homes in Malibu, Calif. Other assets are linked to the leaders of Kenya and Russia.

INSKEEP: Greg Miller of The Washington Post is one of the journalists who has reviewed these documents. He's in London. Greg, welcome to the program.

GREG MILLER: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you can say, where did these documents come from?

MILLER: So these documents come from 14 different financial services companies that are scattered across jurisdictions around the world - in Singapore, in Panama and other places. And it's - and that's a key distinction here from the Panama Papers. This comes from - that came from a single law firm. This comes from 14. I have to say that we're not disclosing the - exactly how these documents were obtained and reviewed by journalists as part of the agreement with this broad partnership of news organizations to try to protect the sources here.

INSKEEP: You refer to the Panama Papers. That was an earlier, quite famous leak of financial documents. This one, you're saying, is bigger. Why are, according to your reporting, world leaders shipping so much money out of their own countries?

MILLER: Well, I think that there's a - there's a lot - as many reasons and motivations as we can imagine. In some cases, there is a desire to put money in secure places so that if a leader loses power or falls out of favor, that that money is safe somewhere. They don't see their - investing that money in their own countries as safe, and so they try to park it elsewhere and try to keep it secret. And I think that, you know, some of this - also, there's a long history of using offshore accounts to hide ill-gotten money. That's not always the case, but sometimes this money is a product of corruption or of deals that leaders don't want to come to light.

INSKEEP: Rachel mentioned one of your headline findings - this $100 million in multiple properties in Malibu, Calif., traced to the king of Jordan, King Abdullah. And we have a statement today, just in the last little while, from the palace in Jordan. Quote, "Jordan's King Abdullah owns flats and homes in the U.S.A. and U.K., and this is not a secret or new," they say. What about your reporting is new?

MILLER: (Laughter) I think that's a baffling statement from the king and from his - from the royals in Jordan. I mean, they went to - the truth is that they went to extraordinary measures to keep all of this secret for the king. There has never been any public acknowledgement by the king that he owns three clifftop estates in Malibu, for instance. And you know - and the stories we've written and the documents we've reviewed show that his financial advisers were going to such amazing lengths to keep this secret that they wouldn't even allow themselves to use his name. They would refer to him in internal documents as you-know-who.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, let's just note that this is real estate in California in that particular example, and you have others. When we hear about offshore tax havens, we think of some - I don't know - some island in the Caribbean or pick your country. But in this case, in some cases, the United States is the offshore tax haven. You even report that South Dakota has become a center of hidden financial activity. How'd that happen?

MILLER: Yeah, that's a really important part of our package of stories running today. And it is the fact that several states, including South Dakota in the United States, have over the past decade adopted financial secrecy laws that kind of violate these islands that U.S. and Western officials have scolded for years and years.

INSKEEP: Violate meaning they - you mean to say that they imitate?

MILLER: Yes, they imitate. They have drafted legislation that makes it possible to set up very secretive financial arrangements, and they're almost impenetrable.

INSKEEP: Greg Miller, national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A whistleblower at Facebook says the company is choosing profit over safety.

MARTIN: The whistleblower's name is Frances Haugen, and she's a former Facebook product manager. She leaked internal research documents to federal law enforcement and the media. Her identity was revealed Sunday night in an interview with "60 Minutes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

FRANCES HAUGEN: The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn has been following this story. Bobby, good morning.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is Frances Haugen?

ALLYN: Yeah, Frances Haugen is something of a specialist in how algorithms work and how they affect what we see on social media. She formerly worked at Google and Pinterest. During her two years at Facebook, though, she was on a team focused on figuring out how election-related misinformation spread. But she became disillusioned. She felt like the team was understaffed, that Facebook wasn't taking seriously how its platform was affecting societies around the world. Then Facebook disbanded her team altogether. Weeks later, the Capitol riots happened, and she says Facebook underplayed the - you know, the role that the platform was used by some of the organizers of the riots. She was having a crisis of conscience.

INSKEEP: So she feels that Facebook failed to stop hate speech and calls to violence on the site. But let's be clear about this. Is she saying that there, in fact, were ways to limit hate speech, which is a challenging thing to do, and that Facebook actively failed to do them?

ALLYN: I don't know about limiting hate speech, but she does say that there were ways in which Facebook could have tamped down just how much misinformation was being amplified in the wake of the election and that Facebook failed to do so. And she says they failed to do so because Facebook was mostly interested in its growth and its profits. And it prioritized that over, you know, tamping down the spread of misinformation and violent content.

INSKEEP: Well, it is a for-profit company, we should note. So is she saying that Facebook actually broke the law by the way it behaved?

ALLYN: She believes so. I talked to her lawyer, John Tye, who said she filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And the allegations involve the difference between what Facebook knew about its platform and what it said publicly. Specifically, the complaints are focused on the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook, alleged misrepresentations about Facebook's role in the siege on the Capitol and how Facebook allegedly hid its own research that showed that Instagram is toxic for teen girls' mental health. Lawyer Tye says misleading investors is a crime under U.S. securities law.

JOHN TYE: You can't lie to your investors. You can't withhold important information that would help them decide whether to invest in the company. And we certainly allege that Facebook has done exactly that on a very wide scale on a whole lot of different particular issues.

INSKEEP: Well, now let's just - we hear that this is a crime, but let's talk about how much trouble the whistleblower could be in. She has revealed all this information that Facebook would, I'm sure, contend was confidential. Could she face some legal action?

ALLYN: Yeah. So the SEC has - you know, there's a special whistleblower protection program that the SEC has. And Haugen will be protected under that. Those disclosures are protected. You know, what she gave to Congress was also protected. But, you know, leaking confidential documents that she obtained from the company and leaking it to the media does put a target on her back. There are no legal safeguards for that. And you know, all the legal experts I talked to said Facebook could come after her in court for, you know, something like breach of contract.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, how's Facebook responding?

ALLYN: Yeah, Facebook is saying that, you know, the way the whistleblower is talking about the research is misleading and that it's incomplete. Facebook cites 40,000 people who work on safety and security. Should note here, Steve, that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: How long will President Biden keep up a trade war with China?

MARTIN: American businesses have been waiting for an answer, and they begin to get one today. The U.S. trade representative is going to give a speech. And in that speech, he's expected to criticize China for failing to live up to a partial trade agreement made in the final year of the Trump administration. President Trump sharply increased tariffs with China, and the Biden administration has yet to reduce them.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is following this story. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the administration saying through the trade representative Katherine Tai?

KHALID: Well, the goal, this White House says, is to protect American workers and grow the economy for folks here at home. There is no immediate plan to get rid of the Trump trade pact with China, this so-called phase one deal. But today, Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade rep, will say that she intends to have frank conversations with her counterpart in China about the fact that China has not complied fully with its end of the deal.

Now, the White House insists that their overall trade vision with China is a departure from Donald Trump, who they say acted chaotically, who isolated allies. And they say they are acting more methodically and in coordination with the global community. You know, though, Steve, to be frank, though, the Biden administration is not abandoning the Trump phase one deal, nor are they planning to quickly lift the Trump-imposed tariffs. So while it may be politically toxic to say that you are continuing a policy of President Trump as a Democrat, I will say this is not a wholesale break, you know, from the previous president.

INSKEEP: The tariffs remain in place for now. This effort to increase U.S. exports to China remains in place for now, even though the administration is frustrated with it. What kind of criticism does the administration receive for, in some ways, continuing the same policy?

KHALID: Well, business groups had been telling me, you know, for a while here that the tariffs are attacks on U.S. consumers. And they have been vocally calling for some sort of exemptions process. To date, under President Biden, there was no general mechanism to do that. Today, the Biden administration will be announcing that they're reopening that exclusions process, specifically, the White House says, to mitigate the effects of certain tariffs that have not generated any strategic benefits and, in fact, raise the costs on Americans. But it is noteworthy to point out that the White House has also not ruled out the possibility in the future of applying additional tariffs. They told us that, essentially, they're not going to take any option off the table.

INSKEEP: So this doesn't seem like a tremendous break between the Trump administration and the Biden administration. What does that reflect about the way that Americans of either party are thinking about China?

KHALID: You know, I will say the U.S. trade relationship with China is not really just about what president sits in the Oval. It's also about China. And experts say that China has become more economically aggressive. You know, at the same time, the American public, I will say, has had a more negative opinion of China in recent years. And so experts say there's really just no appetite to go back to the way things used to be with this free trade, open markets philosophy that dominated American trade politics for decades before Donald Trump. And so while they say tariffs may not be perfect, they think that they are a useful tool for leverage.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks so much.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.