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Ethnic Mapping: Prophylactic Or Offensive?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Neal Conan is off. Nobody likes being spied on, and it's unsettling to learn that you have, in fact, been watched without your knowing it, and then to learn that it's the police who have been watching you.

It's what a student at City College of New York says he experienced. His name is Jawad Rasul. He is an American college student who was born in Pakistan and a Muslim who found out only last month that his name showed up in a police report that he and some of his friends - all members of a Muslim club at City College - had been written up in some detail for a certain day of activity in which they participated in 2008.

What had they done? They'd gone off together on a rafting trip. Four years later, Jawad, who was one of the organizers of that rafting trip, received a phone call from a reporter. And that is when Jawad, who joins us now, learned that they had been spied on, that someone along on that trip was reporting back to the New York Police Department. Jawad Rasul, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JAWAD RASUL: It's great to be here, John.

DONVAN: So what did you learn from the AP reporter when he phoned you and said your name shows up in this report on the rafting trip?

RASUL: He read to me the report, and he said that it's mentioned here that you prayed four times a day.

DONVAN: That you prayed four times a day?

RASUL: We actually pray five times a day. So I think they're - the undercover agent missed one of the prayers with us. And it said that most of our discussion was on Islam-related topics, which is very normal for all of us who come together in the Muslim Student Association.

DONVAN: So it was accurately reported that you were Muslims, that you discussed Islam and that you prayed at least four times a day. He missed the fifth time, it sounds like.

RASUL: Yes. Yeah.

DONVAN: And what's your response to learning that you had had an informant along on your rafting trip?

RASUL: It's really disturbing, and it breaks the trust that we have developed - or we had developed at this time with the law enforcement agencies, and as you probably have heard that even the New Jersey FBI, the head of the FBI in New Jersey has come out and said that this really disturbs, it really throws off the whole effort of working with the communities when these kind of things happen, and especially when they come out.

DONVAN: Do you and your colleagues who were on that rafting trip know who the spy was among you?

RASUL: We don't know who it was. We had a hunch, but, you know, some information has come up as to that person, that it might not be him. So we don't know. But it really doesn't matter as to who it was. The fact that there was someone there is disturbing enough.

DONVAN: And what is the rest of your life? You're primarily a student?

RASUL: I am a student, and I have a family, and I work, as well.

DONVAN: And here's my question: Going forward now, what do you do differently? Knowing that you have been watched, are you assuming that you are still watched?

RASUL: Of course. It's always there that someone is watching. Someone is probably listening to all my phone calls. And just to kind of keep them off me and, you know, having - making them misunderstand that I am involved in some kind of wrong activities, I purposely update my Facebook. And, you know, I basically - any time I travel, I'll let them know, knowing that, or thinking, assuming that they are watching every move that I do. Anywhere I go out of town, I use my credit card to leave a trail.

DONVAN: I was going to ask, I didn't quite understand the point of updating on Facebook and using a credit card, but you say you actually want to leave a trail, you want them to know where you've been.

RASUL: Yeah. I want them to know that I'm not a terrorist or anything. I'm just a regular individual trying to live my life in America. And, you know, most of the Muslims, probably 99.9 percent of the Muslims, maybe even 100 percent of the Muslims in America are like that.

DONVAN: All right. Jawad Rasul is a student at City College of New York, and again, his name was included in the NYPD report on its surveillance of Muslim-Americans in the Northeast region. Jawad, thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

RASUL: Thank you.

DONVAN: So the phone call that tipped Jawad off came from a reporter who was working for the Associated Press, and it's due to the AP's extensive reporting over several months that we can place Jawad's experience in a bigger picture, and it's the picture of an approach that law enforcement has access to. It is known as mapping.

And in this case, it's been called ethnic mapping - or more specifically in this case, Muslim mapping. The AP gained access to a New York Police Department document that was marked secret that was the result of their intensive data-gathering mission in Newark, New Jersey.

And it appeared to be aimed at knowing, in the community, who is who and who is where in the Muslim community. And, for example, the report contained photographs of neighborhood restaurants and cafes and stores, names and addresses, and those addresses are named as locations of concern.

But then it defines location of concern this way: It says, it's a place where it's possible to assess the general opinions and the general activity of these communities. So it's general. It wasn't targeted on specific individuals, and it doesn't even speak about suspicions. It's more kind of an ear-to-the-ground technique.

There are also detailed street maps showing which Muslim nationalities are concentrated on which blocks. This mapping is seen as a way of getting to know the lay of the land. And while its use in Muslim neighborhoods appears to be very much a response to the 9/11 attacks, mapping as a tool in general against criminal activity is actually nothing new, and it is seen to have its place.

And we want to understand, as part of this conversation, what that place is. And to help us now, we're going to turn to James Lebeau, who is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and he joins us from member station WSIU. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, James.

JAMES LEBEAU: Thank you.

DONVAN: So what exactly is mapping? I've described it as gathering a great deal of data to sort of draw a picture of the lay of the land. How close to accurate is that?

LEBEAU: That's a very close definition. Basically, you've taken data or information and trying to see, visualize it geographically, where it is across the city or a block or what have you.

DONVAN: And how does law enforcement actually use the knowledge that they gain in mapping?

LEBEAU: Well, they use it in different ways. Now, you've got to remember: What is the purpose of the map? They've been using maps for, you know, like, strategic, long-term plans like allocation of controlled resources after a year or so. They use it for mapping traffic accidents to find high-risk intersections. They use it in investigations to follow crimes around with a similar MO.

And in recent years, they've used mapping more to acquire the different databases from, like, the census and what have you to define the neighborhoods and what kind of people live where, and what are their characteristics.

DONVAN: And why does law enforcement, let's say in a community that 99 percent of the population of that community is not involved in crime, why map a neighborhood that's not involved in crime? Why draw this general picture that includes a lot of the not guilty?

LEBEAU: Well, they may not be involved in crime, but you can map a neighborhood for other concerns, too, like for emergency management. That's another reason for mapping a neighborhood: Who's there? What are the resources? How do you approach the people that have to be evacuated or cared for? So there's all kinds of reasons for mapping neighborhoods.

DONVAN: Well, without asking you to comment specifically on what happened with the New York Police Department, I want to extract from that something that we know that happened. There's cataloging, for example, of restaurants and cafes and gathering places, even some discount stores. What would be the purpose served in gathering just the names and addresses and knowledge about crossroads like that, social crossroads?

LEBEAU: Well, one could see that - a travel agent would do that for a tour of the neighborhood, want to know that information.

DONVAN: But why would a police department want that information?

LEBEAU: Especially if it's out of their jurisdiction in New Jersey, I'm rather puzzled by that myself. But within their jurisdiction, that would be the place to find out what's going on in the neighborhood, who are the people you talk to, you know, who are the stakeholders in that neighborhood in case problems do arise.

DONVAN: And has it proven effective in fighting crime? Are there cases that you can talk to us about - perhaps drug cases, smuggling something else - where it's proven to be quite effective?

LEBEAU: It's proven - mapping has proven to be effective in different areas, but there hasn't been an overall evaluation. I've used it with the police department, the past years, looking for a serial rapist. And I mapped out the activities of a potential suspect, and it looked like this could be the guy, but the DNA didn't match. So...

DONVAN: But here's a distinction I'd be interested in having you help us draw it. In the case that you just described, as mapping out a potential suspect, a crime has been committed, and there's a guy they're looking at. So I understand the sense of a stakeout: Let's see what that guy's life is. Let's see what his social connections are. Let's see where he goes and where he might go.

But the broader case we're talking about, it's not - there's no specific suspect. It's kind of let's-have-a-suspect-in-advance, before a crime is committed. Let's do this kind of mapping. And have you seen that happen before, a sort of, you know, mapping in advance?

LEBEAU: Well, it's - it's probably part of this whole doctrine of intelligence-led policing, which - when you look more at organizations and networks than anything else. So it's probably an attempt to be more proactive with things, if things come up.

Now, you've got to keep in mind, too, that those neighborhoods that were mapped were, you know, you could look at it on the other side, that it was - might be for their protection, too. You know, a mosque could easily be the target of someone. So...

DONVAN: Is it a very sort of updated version of the cop on the beat, in which, you know, the old-fashioned image we have of a cop on a beat who knows everybody in the neighborhood and knows who comes and goes, and so he has a baseline picture of what's normal, so to speak?

LEBEAU: Yeah, it's - you could look at it that way. Of course, it depends upon the philosophy of the people, police department and how they deliver their services.

DONVAN: And the last thing I want to ask you: Are there any legal issues with mapping? Is mapping basically legal?

LEBEAU: It depends upon the data you get and how you get it and what identifiers are on it. Yes.

DONVAN: What would be not legal?

LEBEAU: Mapping people from - with diseases and put their names on them, on the map and things like this, and having that circulate publicly.

DONVAN: Privacy issues, then, in other words?

LEBEAU: Privacy issues, sure.

DONVAN: All right, James Lebeau, I want to thank you very much for joining us and giving us that sense of how this tool is supposed to work and how it has actually worked. James Lebeau is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Thanks very much for joining us.

LEBEAU: Thank you.

DONVAN: We're talking about law enforcement and mapping, specifically ethnic mapping. The New York Police Department came under fire recently for tracking Muslims on the East Coast. And then just today, as a matter of fact, Attorney General Eric Holder is saying that he is disturbed by what he's read about the New York Police Department conducting this surveillance, and he says that the Justice Department is, in fact, reviewing the matter.

Well, we're going to hear two views on the tactic in a moment, and we want to hear from you, as well. Particularly if you're in law enforcement or if you're part of a Muslim community, we would really like your firsthand experience in this. Is this approach a valuable tool, or does it cause harms? And do those harms cause outweigh the benefits? I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We're talking about the recent reports that the New York police were mapping and doing surveillance on Muslim communities. An Associated Press investigation uncovered secret documents and undercover operations and sparked controversy about what constitutes legitimate police tactics, and what crosses the line into a violation of civil liberties.

We've posted a link online to some of the documents that the AP uncovered and the collection of their reports. You'll find all of that at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. In a moment, we're going to get two views from within the Muslim community, and we would also like to hear from you, our listeners.

If you're in law enforcement, or if you're a part of a Muslim community, we want to ask you about this tool. Is it a valuable tool? Does it make any sense? Does it work? Has it produced results? Or does it cause harm? And have those harms outweighed the benefits.

So I want to go to the first of our guests, and that is Linda Sarsour, who is a national advocacy director at the National Network for Arab-American Communities and also a member of the New York-based Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition. Linda, thanks very much for joining us.

LINDA SARSOUR: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: So we've had a brief taste of the sorts of experience, for example, that Jawad Rasul had: A young man goes on a rafting trip and finds out later there was a spy along on the ride. And it's affected - it's made him wary, and it's made him, in a way, change his life. He's deliberately using credit cards and posting frequently on Facebook to leave a trail as his way of saying it's not me, I'm innocent.

But we also heard that the tool has its places. So what's your take on this?

SARSOUR: I think ethnic mapping is ineffective. And as a matter of fact, it's been happening for a long time. It didn't just start with the Muslim community. And it's believed by many civil rights groups and other minority groups that it has led to the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos under the guise of the war on drugs.

The Muslim community has just been an addition to that process, and, you know, the Muslim-American community is a pro-life-enforcement community. We're not anti-law enforcement. What we are is anti-law-enforcement misconduct.

And this racial, religious and ethnic profiling of our community is what's unconstitutional and wrong. As a matter of fact, I mean, Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002 said using race as a proxy for potential criminal behavior is unconstitutional, and it undermines law enforcement by undermining the confidence that people can have in law enforcement.

So what it does is it creates mistrust between community and law enforcement, and the Muslim community should be seen as a partner in the fight against terrorism and not as a suspect community. So this mapping that's being done, and this blanket surveillance on an entire community, based solely on religion - and as you pointed out, the documents are online, the secret documents, and Commissioner Kelly and Bloomberg have not been able to talk to us and tell us, as the Muslim community and New Yorkers, what exactly that lead is that they're talking about.

What is the lead? And for us right now, based on the information we've received, the lead is being Muslim.

DONVAN: All right. I want to bring in - we've asked listeners to share their experiences, as well, and their points of view both by email and by calling us, and we already have some emails coming in. I want to bring in - or read from an email from Ahmed(ph) in San Francisco, who writes: When the goal of the police is to crack down on or eradicate a certain crime, they typically go to the known sources.

Unfortunately, this sometimes means ethnic mapping. Just as poor, rural areas are hotspots for meth, inner-city neighborhoods are riddled with gangs, and Muslim-American communities tend to house potential terrorist activities. I believe we'd rather be safe than sorry.

Can you respond to that? In other words, I think Ahmed's saying it's not - mapping happens, and mapping happens, I guess he's saying, rationally or reasonably, and he's calling this particular application, Muslim communities, reasonable.

SARSOUR: Ethnic mapping is - first of all, it's ineffective. It costs us a lot of taxpayer dollars to go and, you know, monitor the daily lives of communities. And when we talk specifically at the Muslim community, we're talking about, you know, people documenting where you went to eat dinner, at which restaurant, what mosque you attend, who do you interact with, what you do. I mean, this is ineffective. It costs the taxpayer too much dollars.

And really, like you said before in your one of your questions: What has the result been? Even some of the quote-unquote "foiled plots" that the NYPD boasts of, many of those have been foiled by members of within the community. I mean, you can talk about, you know, you know, the Faisal Kahn(ph), you know, Times Square bomber. The first 911 call that went in was by a Senegalese Muslim street vendor.

I mean, the fact that our community also does not want to have - we don't want terrorists in our community. We don't want another attack against New York City or our country because many Muslims, both rescue workers as well people in the towers died who were Muslim that day.

So I think it's - I think to say that, you know, let's prevent it before it happens by racially profiling and putting an entire community suspect is not - the argument doesn't hold water with me.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Patricia(ph) from Selma, Oregon. Hi, Patricia, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Patricia? Hi.


DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air.

PATRICIA: Oh yes, hi. I agree with the lady that just spoke.

DONVAN: Linda Sarsour, yeah.

PATRICIA: I am a convert to Islam, and I previously worked in law enforcement in the intelligence community and in crime scene investigation.

DONVAN: I - so since you've worked in law enforcement, I've very interested in Linda's point. She says that it's ineffective, and my question is, if it's ineffective, why are they doing it? Because it would seem to me that they wouldn't want to waste their time with something that's ineffective. So you've maybe been on the other side of this or at least have some knowledge of its ineffectiveness if you feel that way.

So tell me about that. Why is it seen as not working?

PATRICIA: Well, I really believe that Muslims in America really do truly want to integrate into the community and be part of the fiber of this country. And I've lived in the Middle East, in Muslim countries, and when they hear I'm an American, they immediately love us, and they want to come to our country. They say how great it is.

But when things like this happen, it just sensationalizes the thought that Muslims really believe there is an attack and a war on their religion. And moderate Muslims, this kind of stuff just fuels the fire and can push them out. I really believe a tactic or a strategy is to, like the previous speaker said, is get into the community, create relationships. And we don't want terrorists. We don't want people - that is a stain on our religion.

DONVAN: Sure. All right, Patricia, thanks very much for your call. Linda Sarsour, I want to come back again to the question, I guess I feel like I've asked it two or three times, and I'm not getting the answer directly to the question I'm asking. I understand your point, and Patricia's point, that this can be very alienating to the Muslim community and therefore has a backfire effect, potentially.

But I'm trying to understand: How do we know that as a way to find out if crime is going to be committed, that it's ineffective, that it doesn't work?

SARSOUR: It doesn't work because there haven't been any proven results from the blanket surveillance on the Muslim-American community. I mean, when was the last time that you can give me an example of a potential, quote-unquote, "terrorist" who came out specifically from an MSA in the recent years, or someone that came out of a particular mosque that was on the list of those surveilled by the NYPD.

I mean, we can look at examples of, for example, Jose Pimentel, who was recently caught last year by the NYPD. I mean, he was a convert to Islam. He was Dominican. He didn't fit the 29 ancestries of interest that the NYPD demographics unit was focusing on. There were 28 Arab- and/or Muslim-majority countries. The 29th ancestry of interest that they added was black American Muslims. Obviously, Jose Pimentel (unintelligible) didn't fit any of those categories. He was a lone wolf. He was also mentally unstable.

And even the FBI said oh, we are not - we didn't even get involved in that case because there was too much involvement from the NYPD informant. So unless someone can give me a really good example of someone who ate at a local restaurant or is a business owner or someone who frequents a particular mosque or is an imam in our community, in the tri-state area where the NYPD was mapping, I'd love to hear that.

I haven't really - I haven't really, you know, seen that. I think that...

DONVAN: So you're saying those - you're saying those successes just don't, you don't see them anywhere?

SARSOUR: I don't see them, and you asked the question but why would they do it. If it's not effective, why would they do blanket surveillance in our community. I think it's because they validate the funding that they're receiving. The NYPD is the largest police force in our country. They have a multi-billion-dollar budget.

And if they were an army, they'd be the seventh-largest army in the world. So they have to validate that amount of funding. So they have to create programs, and they have to say look, we're surveilling these, you know, areas, and they're getting money, you know, from the White House administration.

So they have to say there was foiled plots, and they use these - they highlight these cases to the general public to say: See, this is what we're doing. But really at the end of the day, it's about partnership with communities. Let the communities be a partner against the war on terror. Don't put the entire community under suspect and hinder those relationships that can potentially be helpful to law enforcement.

DONVAN: All right, Linda Sarsour, thanks very much. You're a member of the New York-based Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition and the national advocacy director at the National Network for Arab-American Communities. You joined us by phone from Brooklyn. Thanks very much for being on TALK OF THE NATION.

SARSOUR: Thank you.

DONVAN: So we want to take a turn to a second guest now. This is Zuhdi Jasser, he's a physician in Arizona who traveled to New York very recently to show his support for the New York Police Department by gathering together members of his coalition, known as the American Islamic Leadership Coalition. And they gathered in front of One Police Plaza. He is also president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in Arizona, and joins us from member station KJZZ in Tempe. Dr. Jasser, thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

DR. ZUHDI JASSER: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: So we've heard - and as I just mentioned, you've actually demonstrated your support for the New York Police Department, but we've heard from callers and also from Linda Sarsour two arguments against - of against the practice of this kind of mapping, surveillance. One is - number one, that it alienates a community that the police really don't want to have alienated. And secondly, that there - we don't know of it actually having produced actionable leads. I would argue we don't know one way or the other, but we don't know - certainly don't know that there have been actionable leads or successes leading - coming directly out of this kind of work. So what are your responses to those two cases that this actually does no good and does some bad?

JASSER: Well, I think it's important to - and one of the reasons why we went to New York and over 20 of our organizations - from (unintelligible) in Congress, the Alliance of Iranian Women and Live for All, which is one of the largest Muslim organizations in the world - came in was because we wanted some balance to this story. And this is not a binary thing, like you're either for the NYPD or you're against the...

DONVAN: I know. But, Doctor, we don't have much time, and I'm really not asking you why you're taking this stand. I just want to ask you at this point if you could answer the question about the approach. If it doesn't do good and causes some harm, is there a case to be made against that?

JASSER: Well, I believe it does do good in that we know that there's - if you look, for example, the Alavi Foundation was - a half billion dollars were seized in 2009 - four mosques and Shia mosques in the New York area, including a skyscraper, were a front for the Iranian government. If you look at the Muslim Student Association, over 13 previous leaders of chapters and members of the MSA, including Imam al-Awlaki, who radicalized Nidal Hasan and the Christmas bomber, and Aafia Siddiqui and Adam Gadahn, who was the spokesperson for al-Qaida, those were all graduates of the Muslim Student Association.

So from a granular level, if you're a cop on the beat, as you spoke before, you're going to get to know your neighborhood, and you're not going to waste your time if you're looking at, for example, mafia work, and you're going to look at Italian neighborhoods in the past. And if you're doing work against Muslim radicalization, I mean, at the core of this question is: Do we as a Muslim community have a problem? And there's no doubt if you look at over the last 225 arrests on terrorism in America, over 180 or 85 percent of them have come from our population.

So I, as a Muslim father who's going to have children in university in five or six years, I hope there's, you know, NYPD amongst them, in public places. This is - listen, I would never want my civil liberties ever infringed, but we have to do this in balance. And that if we over-exaggerate what is happening and just monitoring public places, that actually will serve to radicalize Muslims, not the programs, but the way they're presented. And I think we - if you want to fix the problem of radicalization, we just want to know it, and we're open. You know, as a Muslim, I'm open to these things.

DONVAN: Well - I'm going to bring you back to the example I brought up in the beginning, Jawad Rasul. And, you know, he's a young man and a student, and he went on a rafting trip and found out what - pretty conclusively - it doesn't seem to be disputable that there was a spy along on the trip. And you brought your kids into it. And on the one hand, you're saying you would like them - you want them to be in a safe place, and you believe that these practices increase the chance of safety. But would you want a spy along on one of your kid's school trips watching your kid?

JASSER: The way you portray it as a spy, I disagree with you. Remember, the civil rights groups that speak on our behalf claim that they - Muslim informants are the ones who found so many different plots, and I agree. So on the one hand, we take ownership of Muslim informants, but on the other hand, when it's an NYPD person who is a Muslim, we somehow think that we bring in this police-state concept.

And listen, my family came from Syria. That is a real oppressive, dictatorial regime that kills its own citizens et cetera. And for Muslim organizations not to say, you know what, it's different here. The NYPD are brave Americans. They're trying to keep us safe. London, for example, has video footage of every foot in the city. Does that mean that they've crossed civil rights? I think we just have to step back and say, yes, we want it policed. If there's a case that they can cite in which evidence was obtained illegally, I don't want them doing illegal wiretaps or invading the privacy of my children in school. But you know what, if there's Muslim groups that are getting infiltrated with radicalization and - I'd ask them to look at the NYPD report in 2007...


JASSER: ...that showed that there is a radicalization process. And we need to embrace transparency as a community. That's what Islam is. We welcome everybody.

DONVAN: Dr. Jasser, you're very good at speaking without periods on your sentences.

JASSER: I'm sorry.

DONVAN: I just need - that's OK. I don't mean...

JASSER: I apologize.

DONVAN: ...I don't mean that in a rude way. I just want to bring in some callers.

JASSER: Absolutely.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. And let's bring in Abdi(ph) from Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Abdi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ABDI: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi. Hi. You're on the air.

ABDI: Hi. My name is Abdi, and I'm Somali-American. I'm also a Muslim. I actually don't agree with the guy you're talking with right now...

DONVAN: Dr. Jasser.

ABDI: ...his view and because that's not how Muslims are. Most of the community, especially if I speak for the Somalian, we've had the FBI and the police departments and everybody come into our community, and we have coordinated and have done everything that the - that needed to be done to protect the wild community of where we live. And we are all citizens, you know, of this country. We want the best of it. But when you have things that the New York department has done, you're going to scare those communities away because they don't know if they have a mole inside the community. And what's going to happen is instead of people be forthcoming, they're going to think that if even as they speak off the cuff that somebody is listening to them, and that they're going to report them to the police, and that bad things are going to happen because a lot of the people here come from repressive regimes.

DONVAN: All right. Abdi, I'm afraid I have to cut you off only because we're coming up to the break. But I do think you made your point and made it strongly. Thanks very much for your call. I also want to thank Zuhdi Jasser, who is a founding member of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition and also president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in Arizona. He joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Thank you, Zuhdi Jasser.

JASSER: Thank you.

DONVAN: And coming up, the new video that has gone viral on YouTube and may have shown up on Facebook and Twitter feed today in fact. It calls for the arrest of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. We will talk about "Kony 2012" next. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.