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Morning News Brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The federal government is closed today for the newest federal holiday - Juneteenth.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bang. This happened so fast. The president signed the bill just yesterday, and today, here we are observing the holiday, which marks June 19, 1865. That's the date when enslaved people in Texas found out they were free more than two years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Vice President Harris was there as President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names - Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day and, today, a national holiday.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: The passage of that national holiday was one of a pair of bipartisan moments in Congress this week.

FADEL: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is following this. Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So let's talk about the significance of the government recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

GRISALES: This marks the first new federal holiday in nearly four decades. And it came together rather quickly this week after years of attempts by a group of bipartisan lawmakers, including several from Texas where this day especially has significant meaning. That includes Houston area Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Texas Senator John Cornyn. Now, the actual day, of course, falls on Saturday, but the federal government quickly adjusted to allow the holiday to be recognized by its workers today. And while this quick-moving action received a lot of praise, we should note that many lawmakers and activists say this is a symbolic move that shouldn't eclipse efforts to take on more difficult challenges, such as voting and police reform.

FADEL: Now, this wasn't the only history-making event for Congress this week, right? The House also moved to repeal a nearly two-decade-old measure giving the president pretty expansive war powers.

GRISALES: Right. The House approved a bipartisan measure to repeal one of two war power initiatives passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In this case, this was the 2002 Authorization of Use of Military Force in Iraq. California Democrat Barbara Lee authored this bill, and I talked to her ahead of the vote. Let's take a listen.

BARBARA LEE: Authorizations cannot be blank checks that stay as authorizations for any administration to use the way they see fit. It's Congress' duty and responsibilities.

GRISALES: Nearly 20 years ago, Lee was the lone member of Congress to vote against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She opposed these separate wide-ranging presidential authorities to invade these countries and order military action for terrorist groups around the world since. Now, some like Lee and others say this new momentum is the first step to dismantling both these war powers perhaps as early as this year and Congress taking back this authority.

FADEL: So the first step. What are the next steps for that repeal effort?

GRISALES: Lee has some key allies to at least repeal this 2002 war power. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Biden are on board. But there are still concerns. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Congress first needs to debate how the U.S. will fight terrorism before repealing these war powers that are in place. Let's take a listen.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Reality is more complicated, more dangerous and less politically convenient than its supporters actually believe.

GRISALES: So this also ties into a larger debate about the 2001 war power, which was issued ahead of the invasion of Afghanistan and is a key justification for ordering military action against terrorists. And Biden and many others have signaled that that cannot be repealed without a replacement. So that means a much bigger fight ahead.

FADEL: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks.

GRISALES: Thanks much.

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FADEL: It's been nearly 20 years since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And within weeks, the last U.S. troops on the ground may leave. But what happens to the thousands of Afghans who risked their lives working for the U.S. as interpreters, drivers, advisers, cooks? If the Taliban retakes the country, many feel they are marked for death. We're withholding this man's name for his safety.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Every day, now you can see an increase in attacks. You can see an increase of the Taliban's presence in major cities. What am I going to do after September? You know, what's going to happen in November? Am I going to be even alive by by December?

FADEL: NPR has spoken with several Afghans seeking visas to the United States. A special program is supposed to welcome them, but many have been rejected or have been waiting for years. Steve Inskeep has been reporting on this. So, Steve, tell us what people have been telling you.

INSKEEP: Stories of desperation. I mean, the man we just heard says he's been receiving threatening calls from people who claim to be the Taliban saying, we know where you live, we're coming for you. We talked with another man who works for a U.S. military defense contractor who's also receiving threats along with a hand grenade attached to his door, which could've blown him up. And this man has been waiting for a U.S. visa for three years. He feels time is short because his brother-in-law worked for the same defense contractor, and gunmen already killed the brother-in-law while he was driving.

FADEL: Oh, that's terrifying. And you said a defense contractor. Did some of the Afghans serve the U.S. military in combat?

INSKEEP: Not all of them, Leila, but many of them did. We, for this story we were working on, interviewed a Marine veteran who told of his interpreter being with him as they received artillery and machine gunfire. And think about this - the Marine is fighting alongside Afghan units, so that interpreter's work to get everybody to communicate is a matter of life and death.

FADEL: A matter of life and death. Is his interpreter getting out?

INSKEEP: Not now. There is a law which allows Afghans who served the United States to apply for special immigrant visas. But there's a massive backlog. The process can take years. And you have to prove that you gave useful service to the United States. And, in this case, the interpreter couldn't document that he had a perfect record. We did speak with that Marine who worked with the interpreter, retired Major Weston Amaya. And a few weeks ago, he says he received an email from his Afghan interpreter, which he read for us.

WESTON AMAYA: (Reading) Dear sir, as you are aware, the U.S. Army is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and the security is getting worse day by day, and the Taliban is coming back. They will target and kill me. So please, sir, rescue me from the enemy. Please do something to save me.

Since that email, I've tried to email him a few times. But as of last week, I haven't heard anything from him. I don't know if he's safe or not.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention, Leila, that after our interview, Amaya finally heard from the interpreter, who's been laying low because of violence in his neighborhood. So he is alive but still stuck.

FADEL: That's so hard to hear a man begging to be saved when he risked his life for the U.S. What keeps the U.S. from getting him and other former employees out?

INSKEEP: Well, we spoke with the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, who says, listen, we feel a moral obligation to get people out, but the law has requirements. Not everybody qualifies. And even for people who qualify, there can be a wait of years. On top of everything else, Leila, an outbreak of COVID at the U.S. embassy has stopped visa interviews right now, slowing down the process even more. And there are a lot of people in Afghanistan who feel that time is running out for them.

FADEL: Thanks for that, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Iranians are voting for a new president at a time when many people in Iran say they're worn out by a weak economy and a COVID outbreak. There are four candidates who could succeed President Hassan Rouhani. One of them is a hardline former prosecutor now judge linked to executions. He's the front-runner.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Tehran and joins us now. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So why don't you first set the scene for us? Does it feel like Election Day?

KENYON: Well, it feels like a muted version of an Iranian election day. There are some short lines outside some polling stations. State TV is showing those every hour. But really it's nothing compared with what I've seen in past elections. At one polling station, I happened to find myself right next to one of the candidates, not Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric who's favored to win, but Abdolnaser Hemmati. He's the former central bank governor. He was quickly surrounded by reporters, and he said he hopes people do turn out to vote today. Here's a bit of what he said.

ABDOLNASER HEMMATI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "It's about what you'd expect on Election Day," he said. He really hopes people do come out to vote. They need to show they're serious because it is all about turnout at this point. And officials, by the way, say we could have results as early as this weekend.

FADEL: So the current president is Hassan Rouhani. He was seen as a pragmatist, the man who led the country into the nuclear deal with world powers hoping for sanctions relief. Tell us a bit about the man Iranians expect to replace this president.

KENYON: Ebrahim Raisi is known to Iranians. He ran four years ago, but voters chose to elect Rouhani to a second term instead. He is a hardline cleric, longstanding credentials. Currently, he's the head of Iran's judiciary. He was criticized for his role in ordering mass executions of dissident prisoners in the late 1980s. Still, he is one of just a few candidates out of hundreds who tried to run, and he is clearly the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who voted, by the way, early today and urged Iranians to come out and boost the turnout somewhat. Several of Raisi's rivals have already dropped out of the race. There had been some effort to get voters to rally behind Hemmati, but it would definitely be a surprise if he managed to get more votes than Raisi.

FADEL: So what would this mean for U.S.-Iran relations and things like the 2015 nuclear agreement?

KENYON: Well, so far, analysts say a Raisi government is showing no sign of wanting to be in any rush to pull out of the nuclear deal. Although many of his hardline supporters would want him to do that. He does have a window of opportunity to have it both ways, if you will. Between now and August, there will be a political transition period in Iran. So if negotiators do reach an agreement to restore the nuclear deal before then, it's possible Raisi could tell his hardline voters, hey, it's already a done deal, it was Rouhani's fault, not mine.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tehran. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.