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Top-Secret Documents Published By 'The Intercept'


This morning, the U.S. and its coalition partners have launched a long-awaited assault on the city of Raqqa in Syria. For the past three years, Raqqa has been the Islamic State's de facto capital and the heart of the group's movement. U.S. officials have long said that the only way to win the war against ISIS is to force them out of that city. NPR national security editor Phil Ewing is in the studio with us to talk more about this. Hi, Phil.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: This assault has been in the works for a long, long time. How do U.S. military officials see this particular fight?

EWING: They have been supplying weapons and equipment and other assistance to these local forces in northern Syria for some time. Most recently, President Trump authorized them to provide weapons directly to one of these key forces over the objections of a key U.S. ally, Turkey. And now that that material is beginning to flow, now that these units on the ground are all squared away from a military perspective, they feel like they want to cross the line of departure and actually launch this attack against the city.

I have a statement here from Central Command, and I'll just read to you something very quickly from Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, who's is the commander. He said the fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult, but the offensive will deliver a decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate.

In other words, they don't want the Islamic State to be a state. They want it to be at best an insurgency or an idea or a loose group of terror cells like some of these other groups.


EWING: And taking apart this capital of Raqqa's the first step to doing that.

MARTIN: So Mosul is another city that ISIS was trying to wrap up in this larger caliphate. And the fight to take that city back has also been long and very difficult. It's not even over because there are so many civilians living there. Is that going to be the situation in Raqqa?

EWING: That's potentially one of the dangers. And the other aspect to this is - as you mentioned, the fight in Iraq and Raqqa's been taking place for months. I don't know if there's any end in sight there. And we certainly don't know how long this fight in Syria is going to take.

Not only is there this military challenge of retaking the capital Raqqa, but there's all kinds of other Islamic State fighters along the river valley that goes east from there to the Iraqi border. And so there's more fighting even beyond the battle there.

The U.S. says it is not going to encourage civilians to stay in Raqqa. Instead, they should depart. That's a different decision from the one they made in Mosul. And so if that helps reduce civilian casualties in Raqqa, we'll just have to see what difference it makes.

MARTIN: We've got another national security story to talk about this morning. This is the NSA document that was leaked to the online news site The Intercept. This document says right before the election, Russia tried to hack into an American electronics firm that provides voting equipment. As you look at this, are we learning anything new about what these Russian hackers were trying to do and how successful they might have been?

EWING: What they appeared to want to do is explore as much as they can the networks of these vendors who provide these services and also the state officials of its clients in eight states around the country who use its support systems and also its physical voting machines.

We don't know exactly per this NSA document how much they might have learned or what type of compromises they might have made. But the fact that they were doing it and the fact that they were doing it after the U.S. publicly attributed these cyberattacks to the Russians is very interesting.

And also, there's tons of little refinements in this NSA document that just make it fascinating reading. The NSA clearly knows a lot about this Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, what it does, what its cyberattack styles are. And so there are interesting little tidbits like that that you can glean out in addition to all the things the U.S. intelligence has said before.

MARTIN: There is fallout for the person accused of leaking this document. Her name is Reality Leigh Winner. What do we know about her?

EWING: She's 25. She works for an intelligence contractor called Pluribus down in Georgia. There's some press reporting that indicates that she was in the Air Force before this as a linguist. And she's one of these people who works on kind of the outer periphery of the intelligence agencies not as an employee of the government but as a contractor. And as you remember with people like Edward Snowden, this has been an issue before with them releasing secrets into the public.

MARTIN: And now she has been arrested for allegedly leaking this information. NPR national security editor Phil Ewing, thanks so much for being here.

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

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.