Killing Of Iranian General Opens Up 'New Frontier' In Assassination, Journalist Says | KNKX

Killing Of Iranian General Opens Up 'New Frontier' In Assassination, Journalist Says

Feb 6, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 9:36 am
Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When President Trump gave his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, he talked about how he directed the military strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force. Trump said, our message to the terrorists is clear - you will never escape American justice; if you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life. But Soleimani was a general, one of Iran's most powerful leaders, and killing a foreign government official outside wartime has been barred by the 1907 Hague Convention, and assassination is banned by a presidential executive order issued by President Ford.

The killing of Soleimani has opened a new frontier in assassination, according to my guest Adam Entous, who - with Evan Osnos - wrote an article in the current issue of The New Yorker titled "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill" (ph). Entous covers intelligence, national security and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. Later, we'll talk about the profile of Hunter Biden that Entous wrote last July in The New Yorker.

Adam Entous, welcome to FRESH AIR. Trump has really bragged about killing Soleimani. Even this week in the State of the Union address, he called Soleimani a ruthless butcher, a monster and said, our precision strike ended his ruthless reign of terror. Would you compare Trump's, like, really bragging about this with how Israel has handled some of its strikes against leaders who Israel saw as terrorists?

ADAM ENTOUS: Well, that's one of the most strange things about this. Usually when Israel conducts an operation like this and, frankly, when the United States conducts an operation like this, the goal is to cover one's tracks. Usually it's done covertly. You use the CIA or secret organization to conduct the strikes; you don't brag about it when you do it. And the reason you choose to do it in this more discreet way is because you want to reduce the chances of retaliation if it's unclear who did it or if it's not being thrust in the face of the political leader that just lost somebody so that they don't feel the political pressure domestically to respond.

And what was so strange about this decision that Trump took was to do it overtly, to do it through the Pentagon, not using the CIA, and then so openly talking about it. It was designed to really intimidate the Iranians, and it was designed maybe for political purposes in the United States. He wants to be seen as somebody who is extremely tough, that uses the military in this kind of very aggressive way. And, you know, this is a decision that took people in the business by surprise, that he chose to do this route.

GROSS: You talked to a lot of people for your article about the killing of Soleimani. Did any of the diplomats or government people in Israel or the U.S. and former diplomats as well - did any of them think that that we're actually closer to war with Iran now?

ENTOUS: Well, I mean, I think the - one of the takeaways of the killing of Soleimani was that there was an effort last year where Trump appeared very interested in getting into negotiations with Iran to try to avoid the risk of, you know, having to get pulled deeper into the region and have to send more forces to the region, which Trump has said he wants to avoid. And so the killing of Soleimani - what does it do to the prospects of those talks?

Now, the Israelis - Bibi Netanyahu in particular, the Israeli prime minister, was very concerned that Trump was planning on entering such an engagement with his counterpart in Iran. And they were, frankly, freaked out about it. They wanted desperately for those talks not to start because they wanted to keep pressure on the Iranians.

So the killing of Soleimani in many ways helps - helped, you know, kind of further Bibi Netanyahu's objective of at least reducing the chances of that type of engagement in the near term. That is one of the things that, you know, was sort of the benefits that Bibi Netanyahu got out of this.

GROSS: Yeah, Israel had been pretty quiet about the U.S. killing of Soleimani, but you say that behind the scenes Netanyahu is very happy about it.

ENTOUS: Yeah. I mean, I met with one Israeli official who told me not even 99.9%, 100% ecstatic about it. Netanyahu was extremely concerned throughout 2019 that Trump was not retaliating to Iranian provocations. The Israelis wanted the United States to get in on this.

The Israelis had been fighting Soleimani, largely in Syria, for several years and had been largely successful in those operations against him. And that campaign that the Israelis were waging had just crossed the border in mid-2019, and the Israelis now had followed Soleimani and his forces into Iraq. And it launched strikes against his forces in Iraq starting in July 2019.

And that increased the pressure, increased the tension. And the groups that the Israelis were striking, the Iranian-backed groups in Iraq that the Israelis were striking, threatened to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq, and that's exactly what they did. So the Israeli strikes were against some of these groups. These groups said that they would respond by attacking U.S. bases, and in October, they started doing that. And that led to the drumbeat which created the tense situation that - and the attacks on the bases that resulted in a U.S. casualty in December, which prompted the escalation that took place.

GROSS: One of the things that the Trump administration did last year was to put the Revolutionary Guard, which includes the Quds Force which was headed by Soleimani - to put them on the terrorist list. So that - did that open up the door to taking out Soleimani?

ENTOUS: One of the officials I spoke to thought that that kind of opened the aperture for targeting the group. Others, lawyers, told me otherwise, that it, you know, really was - it's more of a symbolic decision. And certainly you can understand why it suggests that, you know, you can justify killing a leader in those groups based on that decision to put them on the terror list, that it provides additional justification for why you might do it but that, in the end, you know, the lawyers in the administration decided that, based on the intelligence they were seeing, that they were justified in doing what both the Israelis and previous U.S. administrations hadn't done, that they were - justified killing Soleimani based on intelligence that suggested that he was plotting new attacks.

GROSS: Did you learn anything new about the intelligence?

ENTOUS: Soleimani was always, you know, in the middle of plotting new attacks. Most of those attacks, though, until recently, weren't against Americans. That began to change in October. I mean, my conversations with both Democrats and Republicans who were briefed on the intelligence suggest that, yes, there was intelligence showing that, generally speaking, he was looking at escalating attacks on U.S. targets, potentially embassies in the region that might be easier for his forces and his proxies to reach.

The level of immediacy is - something that I got a sense from the people I talked to, is less clear. And the implication is, is that, you know, they were eager to kill Soleimani, and the intelligence was a convenient way to justify doing so.

GROSS: You know, your article in The New Yorker is subtitled "A New Frontier In Assassinations." What is new about the assassination of Soleimani?

ENTOUS: What's new is killing somebody who's a member of a government. Now, Israel is in a state of war with several of its neighbors and is - you know, justifies its killings on the grounds that it - and it's in a state of war, so these government officials are fair game. The U.S. is not in a declared war with Iran. And for the U.S. to then go and kill a government official was going in a direction that previous administrations had avoided going into. Certainly, like, during conflicts, such as the conflict with Libya during the Obama administration, there were individuals as part of that operation in the government that were targeted, in the military, commanders that were targeted.

What's different in this case is we we're not - we are not at war, technically, with Iran. And so to kill a member of the government, in the view of many former officials that I spoke to, was something that was just never contemplated, both by the Bush and by the Obama administrations, even though they saw Soleimani as a threat to U.S. personnel in the region.

GROSS: Assassination is outlawed. I mean, you can't assassinate people legally. So when did assassination become illegal, both in terms of international law and in terms of American precedent?

ENTOUS: So assassination has been banned for decades under international law. And in the 1970s, Gerald Ford issued an executive order which said that no U.S. government employee shall engage in or conspire to engage in political assassination. That was what made the ban effective for the CIA, which had conducted in the past - or attempted to conduct - targeted killings against American enemies.

So going forward, it becomes much more difficult for the CIA to conduct these kinds of operations. And there is a pullback from conducting them that starts in the '70s and really continues until the 9/11 attacks.

GROSS: So is targeted killing a linguistic way of getting around assassination?

ENTOUS: As part of the interviews for the story, I spoke to John Brennan, who was in charge of some of these operations under the Obama administration. He explained that, you know, you can get a lawyer to say that something is legal, and that doesn't mean that it is. So different administrations, different lawyers interpret these rules, these executive orders in different ways. And that's what's happened over the years.

There's been a consistency in the way it's been interpreted after 9/11, that the targets have been members of terrorist organizations. But the Trump administration lawyers, when they looked at the Soleimani case, decided that he could legitimately be killed because of his involvement in alleged planning and plotting against U.S. forces.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Entous. He writes for The New Yorker. He reports on intelligence, national security and foreign policy. His latest piece is called "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill: A New Frontier In Assassinations." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Entous. He reports on intelligence, national security and foreign policy for The New Yorker. His latest piece is called "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill: A New Frontier In Assassination."

You report on a story that shows that Israel almost killed Soleimani back in 2008. He wasn't the prime target that they were going after. The prime target was Imad Mughniyeh, who was the architect of military strategy for Hezbollah, the armed force in Lebanon that's backed with money and weapons by Iran and is one of the enemies of Israel. So how did this targeting of Mughniyeh almost end up killing Soleimani?

ENTOUS: Well, that's a - it's an interesting, you know, backstory. What happened was, is the - you know, Israel and the United States both saw Mughniyeh as a threat. He was involved in the 1980s, in particular, with some very large-scale, deadly bombings that killed American officials, killed CIA officials and killed Israelis who were part of a force that was in southern Lebanon in the 1980s. And so there was a great deal of interest, particularly in Mossad, to go and find him and kill him.

And it became an especially high priority for the Israelis after the 2006 war in Lebanon. They were concerned that Mughniyeh was working to re-arm the group for the next round of fighting, and they wanted to see if they could kill him before he succeeded in that effort. The problem was, Mughniyeh was invisible, almost. He was very difficult for the Israelis and the Americans to find. His tradecraft was renowned. You know, he, you know, just seemed to leave no trace.

But the Mossad got lucky, and they had an agent who was in Lebanon that had access to the inner sanctum, the leadership of Hezbollah, and, as part of that access, was able to gain access to Mughniyeh's cellphone. That allowed Mossad to track his cellphone. And once they started tracking him, they realized that he was traveling to Damascus area, where he visited two apartments - one that was where his mistress lived, and another one where he had meetings with other security officials. And they - Mossad decided that they would try to - to try to kill him there, at the second apartment.

They had a problem, though. You know, access to Syria - Israel famously has access to Syria, but it's hard for them to operate there. It's a very difficult environment for Mossad. And so they thought if they brought the CIA in - and they knew the CIA was keenly interested in killing Mughniyeh. It had been for decades.

And so it decided to bring in the CIA because it knew that the U.S. had an embassy in Damascus and that the CIA would be able to use the personnel in the embassy and shipments that go to that embassy to bring in supplies for the operation. And so that's the reason why Mossad decided to bring the CIA in on the operation.

GROSS: And when Mughniyeh emerged from his vehicle and Israel was about to take him out, two other leaders were with him. One of them was Soleimani. Who was the other?

ENTOUS: There was - there were - it was a big surprise. Mossad was obviously tracking the phone of Mughniyeh, so they knew that he was going to the park - to the apartment. But they didn't know that these two other wanted figures that Israelis also wanted were heading to the apartment to meet him. One of them was Soleimani, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force.

The other one was Muhammad Suleiman. Muhammad Suleiman was a top adviser to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and had advised the country on building chemical and nuclear capabilities. And there was a reactor that he was responsible for building, a nuclear reactor, that the Israelis had taken out the year before.

So these three men ended up at the location where the killing was supposed to take place. The deal that was is that Olmert, the prime minister - Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, had made an agreement, a secret agreement, with George W. Bush, the president of the United States, that there would only be one person killed in this operation.

The CIA was only authorized to kill Mughniyeh. The other two officials, which they didn't know were going to be there, were both state officials. Soleimani was a Iranian military officer. And in the case of Suleiman, Muhammad Suleiman, he was a Syrian government and military officer. And so both of them were off limits.

And Ehud Olmert happened to be - by coincidence 'cause they didn't know when this operation was going to happen - he happened to be on his airplane flying back from a state visit to Berlin. He had a satellite phone with him. But the Mossad officers who were in charge of the operation, they only had a limited amount of time to make a decision. They could have basically called Olmert and asked for permission to kill the three of them, but the CIA station chief, the head CIA representative in Israel, was in the operation center, and he only was authorized to participate in the killing of one person, and that was Mughniyeh.

So if they had tried to kill all three of them, the CIA station chief would have been required to seek permission from Washington. There just wasn't the time to get the permission that was necessary. It's unclear if they would have gotten the permission.

And Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, later told the commander of the operation the next morning that if there was a way that he had to sneak out of the room away from the CIA officer and called him and said - do I have permission to kill all three of them? - Olmert told them that he would have immediately given them permission to kill them all.

GROSS: Even though that would've broken his agreement with George W. Bush.

ENTOUS: Yeah. He wanted - he thought that - and I think he probably is - was right about this - that, you know, Bush would've forgiven him for having done it. And it never happened because the Mossad officer, No. 1, didn't have that much time. And they were very concerned about doing anything that would jeopardize the relationship that they were building with the CIA.

This is not a relationship of trust over decades. This is actually a relationship of distrust between these two services. And Olmert and the head of Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, were working very hard to try to build trust because the Israelis knew that they were facing what they saw as an existential threat that they wanted the Americans to help with, which was the nuclear program in Iran.

GROSS: So Israel ended up taking out Mughniyeh because after the meeting, he emerged alone, and they had just enough time to kill him without killing the other two.

ENTOUS: That's right. The other two left the meeting before Mughniyeh. And they watched them get into their car. They had set up cameras in an apartment that was rented by the CIA nearby that had views of the street so they could see all of this unfolding. And the two other potential targets that were not authorized, they get into the car; they drive away.

Ten minutes, 15 minutes later, Mughniyeh comes out of his apartment, and he walks by the kill zone, they call it. This is the section behind this SUV that was brought there by Mossad agents. He walks into the kill zone, and then the button is pushed in Tel Aviv, which detonates the explosive which was in the tire - the rear - spare tire of the vehicle. There has not been a Hezbollah response to the killing of Mughniyeh. So many of the details of the operation have remained a secret until now.

GROSS: My guest is Adam Entous. His new article in The New Yorker, written with Evan Osnos, is titled "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill." After we take a short break, Entous will talk about his profile of Hunter Biden. Two Senate committees just announced they're reviewing potential conflicts of interest posed by Hunter's business activities while his father was vice president. And David Bianculli will review the new CBS crime drama "Tommy," starring Edie Falco as the new police chief for the LAPD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Adam Entous, who covers intelligence, national security and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. In this part of the interview, we talked about Hunter Biden. Entous profiled Hunter Biden last July, reporting on his business dealings and tumultuous personal life. In December, Entous wrote about the efforts of Rudy Giuliani and Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine's former prosecutor general, to smear Joe Biden. Our interview was recorded yesterday, before the Senate acquitted President Trump.

Later, the Republican heads of two Senate committees announced that they're reviewing potential conflicts of interest posed by the business activities of Hunter Biden during the time his father was vice president. The committees have requested travel records to find out whether Hunter used government-sponsored travel to help conduct private business in China and Ukraine.

How did you start writing about Hunter Biden and Ukraine?

ENTOUS: So my editors were - there were a lot of stories that were circulating, particularly on Breitbart and Fox News that were making some of these allegations about the involvement of Hunter Biden on the board of this Ukrainian gas company called Burisma. You know, I said, hey, let me poke around; let me see if there's any there there.

It kind of morphed into a story that told about his business activities and his very, in some cases, questionable business choices, but also the broader story of his, you know, struggles with alcohol and drugs and how that, frankly, contributed to some of these problems that his father and he are now facing.

GROSS: How did the story get started that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, got a former Ukrainian prosecutor removed from office because the prosecutor was investigating corruption in Burisma, the energy company in which Hunter Biden served on the board of directors? That's the Republican narrative. There is no evidence to back that up. There's no evidence that Biden was trying to cover up for his son and prevent an investigation into Burisma; it's actually the opposite way around, according to your sources.

ENTOUS: Yeah. So it kind of starts in kind of two parts. The original stories, which were covered by the mainstream press - The Wall Street Journal, New York Times - when Hunter Biden was given this very lucrative seat on the board of Burisma. When that takes place in 2014, you know, there are stories that are written at the time, you know, about the questions raised about the decision of Hunter Biden to take the seat on the board because of his father's role in trying to get Ukraine to combat corruption and the perception that that could create a conflict of interest. So that - you know, that's a story that's been bubbling.

Starting in 2014, what happens is, is that a conservative researcher who's very close to Steve Bannon, Peter Schweizer, he writes a book that comes out in 2018, which points at those 2014-2015 articles about the questionable choice of Hunter Biden and, frankly, Joe Biden and his son playing this role. And then what happens is, is that Biden, as part of his efforts, the vice president, in trying to get Ukraine to combat corruption, he is urged by his team to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to remove a prosecutor, Shokin - Viktor Shokin - because he was not investigating corruption and, in particular, was not investigating this company, Burisma.

GROSS: So one of the things that furthered what became the Republican narrative, Joe Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor fired because the Ukrainian prosecutor was looking into corruption in Burisma, the company on which Hunter Biden served on the board of directors. This book that helped further that narrative was written by Peter Schweizer, who is the co-founder, with Steve Bannon, of the Government Accountability Institute, which is funded in part or perhaps largely funded by Rebekah Mercer, part of the Mercer family, which funds a lot of right-wing causes.

You've read the book, and you've done a lot of investigation. How much of this book is actually based on fact? How much of it do you think is really misleading?

ENTOUS: Well, I think that the chronology is largely accurate. But what I was amazed at was, you know, obviously Peter Schweitzer was not able to really talk to anybody. I don't know how hard he tried to talk to people. But, for example, there's a moment when, just before Hunter joins the board of Burisma, there is a visit to the White House by Hunter's business partner Devon Archer.

And in the book, it's described as a moment when Hunter and Devon Archer, who are going to be on the board of Burisma, he's suggesting, because of the timing of the visit - it was right before the announcement that they were joining the board. He was suggesting, Schweizer was suggesting that the meeting obviously was about talking to Joe Biden about their role that they were going to play at this Ukrainian company.

So as part of my reporting, I spoke to Devon Archer. Archer explained that actually it was that Hunter had heard that his son, his young son, had a school project, and he was designing a model of the White House. And what happened was, is that Hunter, at the last minute, arranged for Archer's son to come to the White House so he could look around the White House and make a better school model for - you know, a cardboard model of the White House.

And so it was interpreted in the most nefarious way, without any evidence or having done any interviews, by Schweizer when, in fact, it was a completely benign - had nothing to do with Burisma. It was purely kind of a nice gesture between friends for Archer's son. And to me, it was sort of the classic example of where you can construct a narrative based on chronology, but unless you really talk to people, you really might be misinterpreting things, which is what happened in this case.

And the book is littered with examples like that, where Schweizer is making the most nefarious interpretations of what, when you actually talk to people, you realize are actually benign moments.

GROSS: So how influential was this book?

ENTOUS: Well, it certainly was influential in right-wing media. I mean, Fox gave it a lot of airtime. Breitbart printed a lot of stories based on parts of the book. As we saw with "Clinton Cash," one of the things that...

GROSS: Another book written by Peter Schweizer.

ENTOUS: Correct. What we saw is, is that the strategy that Bannon and Schweizer have is to take these investigations, if you want to call it that, and find a way to get the narrative to jump from the right-wing press into the mainstream press; in other words, try to get reporters from mainstream news organizations - The New York Times, for example, The Washington Post, you know, mainstream television - get them to run the story.

And that's basically what was happening. There was an attempt to try to do that in the first half of 2019. Giuliani was working that one very hard. I had many conversations with him - Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer who was investigating this and wanted the mainstream press to write stories about Hunter Biden and his, you know, potential conflicts and, you know, the notion that Joe Biden somehow abused his office, even though there's no evidence to back that up. And so he was basically trying to push the story for the first six months of the year, trying to get it into the mainstream press.

GROSS: So he was trying to sell you on that story?

ENTOUS: He was trying to sell me. He was trying to sell everybody, frankly, on that story to try to get them to write stories about it.

GROSS: But your conclusion is that there's no credible evidence that Biden sought the removal of the Ukrainian prosecutor in order to protect his son.

ENTOUS: Yeah, absolutely. I saw no evidence of that. I think the questions about Hunter Biden's wisdom in taking this board seat, given his father's role in Ukraine, that's a legitimate subject of scrutiny. But the notion that his father, you know, used his office in order to protect his son, I saw evidence that suggests the opposite.

Joe Biden, really, frankly - and this is not necessarily to his credit - took a position that whatever his son did was none of his business and nobody should ask him about it. So he sort of gave his son, you know, the freedom to do whatever he wanted and didn't really want to know anything about it.

And when people at the embassy, at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, were asking him to intervene in this case to try to get Shokin fired, because he was not investing in the company that employed his son, Joe Biden did what the embassy staff asked him to do, which is get this guy fired, which ends up obviously coming back and being twisted by the right-wing to make it look like he was trying to protect his son.

GROSS: OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Entous. He writes for The New Yorker covering intelligence, national security and foreign policy. His latest piece is titled "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill: A New Frontier In Assassination." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker reporter Adam Entous.

So you did a long profile of Hunter Biden, and the profile reveals that he's had a lot of problems in his life. He's been in and out of rehab for alcohol addiction, and he's had, like, problematic business dealings. Beyond serving on the Burisma board, he's - he was in one business dealing that lost a lot of money. He bought a $1.5 million home, didn't have the money for a down payment, so paid 110% mortgage. I never even heard of such a thing.

But all those troubles - and there's more, I mean, including a paternity suit that he denied being the father, and a DNA test revealed that he is the father. So you've got all these troubles in his life, but that doesn't mean that Joe Biden did something corrupt.

ENTOUS: No. I mean, I think in many ways, if you kind of look at the history of the family, you know, Hunter was a breadwinner in the family. He was the one that was supposed to make money. Beau, his older brother, you know, who dies of a brain tumor, you know, he is - goes kind of in the - follows his father into politics.

And, you know, his father was famously - you know, didn't have a lot of money, and neither did Beau. And Hunter, you know, steps in and pays, for example, for Beau's law school debts. You know, he's basically making money in order to, you know, help the overall family. And he's struggling with addiction, with alcohol and later with a crack addiction.

And so he's making some of these decisions on business under pressure - right? - to get money and also, you know, impaired, I think, by these addictions. And, you know, he doesn't talk to his father about any of these things because the rule in the family was you don't mix - you know, his business decisions are his, and it doesn't involve his dad. So they had a system that they wouldn't discuss these matters. And so he was making his decisions largely on his own and obviously made some poor decisions along the way.

GROSS: What was the reaction of Biden's staff to Hunter Biden serving on Burisma?

ENTOUS: Generally speaking, they were displeased. Some of them were quite concerned. The issue was, is they didn't want to raise the matter with Joe Biden. You know, they knew that anything involving the family was sort of - they understood it to be sort of off limits. Joe Biden had made it clear to his staff over the years that things that involved their son - his sons were not things that he - that they should discuss with him. And so they rarely raised it, and that's what happened in this case. So even though there was considerable concern, both on Biden's staff but also at the White House and at the State Department, about some of the business activities of Hunter, they didn't feel that they could raise it.

And there is only one example that I know of where it was raised. And when it was raised with Joe Biden, the official who did raise it didn't say to Joe, you know, you should tell your son to get off the board; he just wanted to, you know, let Joe Biden know that during an upcoming visit to Ukraine, he might be asked embarrassing questions about his son's role at the company. It was more of a heads-up rather than a recommendation that Hunter be removed from that - agree to step down from the board.

So, you know, there was a self-censorship that was going on within the circle around Joe Biden that I think in the end did not serve him or Hunter Biden particularly well.

GROSS: I'm wondering how you thought about this when you were writing your piece, your long profile of Hunter Biden. Talking about Hunter Biden and talking about the problems he had, in a way it amplifies the Republican strategy of putting the spotlight on Hunter Biden and his problems and connecting Joe Biden to that. So what was your approach to writing about Hunter Biden while at the same time trying to not play into the Republican narrative of smearing Joe Biden through his son Hunter?

ENTOUS: Yeah. Frankly, that was a really difficult balancing act. You know, I wanted No. 1. I just wanted to be fair and accurate in telling the story, you know. I wanted to be able to shoot down the conspiracy theories that I thought were false.

But at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that I thought was true, which was that you had a person here who was really struggling - who was struggling in his personal life, was struggling with things that I think a lot of people can relate to and made a lot of decisions that maybe weren't thought through. And I could explain what's real and what's not and do it in a way that hopefully made you understand who this person was and that he was a real human being, you know, rather than a caricature.

But it was, you know, very difficult. You know, I didn't want to give him a pass for his mistakes. You know, and so - I wanted to come across as, you know, very evenhanded and tough at times, but at the same time, you know, not buying into the conspiracies that were being pushed and to make clear that those - when those were false, that I could call those to be false.

GROSS: Do you find that people tell you that they don't know what's true anymore, that they hear both sides and like who knows what's right? And, like, at The New Yorker, like, everything you write, everything the New Yorker publishes is so fact-checked. But still, are people reading and saying, well, that's what you reported, but I don't know what's true because I've heard the other side, too?

ENTOUS: Yeah. No, I'm - you know, again, maybe I'm naive, but the - you know, I have friends who are Trump supporters. And when I was working on this Hunter Biden story, you know, occasionally, I get a call from one of them. And they would ask me what I thought.

And, you know, I would say exactly what I told you, which is, you know, that, you know, clearly there were some strange, you know, maybe not good decisions that were being made in terms of, you know, the business activities that he was involved in, but that I don't think that there's any evidence - in fact, the evidence is the contrary, that Joe Biden tried to protect his son.

And they just wouldn't - you know, these friends wouldn't believe me. And, you know, they were more trusting of what Devin Nunez, the House Intelligence Committee - Republican ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee is saying. And he's repeating these allegations. And they're hearing it repeated on Fox.

And I think, you know, people aren't sure - aren't sure what to believe. Like you said, I mean, we do - you know, we do aggressive fact-checking on these stories to make sure that they're true. And this is an incredibly complicated story. And so that makes it so much easier to sell conspiracy theories.

And so, you know, what's - again, what - the thing that just really bothers me is, you know, senators who know and members of Congress who know that what they're saying is false, they're repeating the false allegation because they don't care. They just want to score political points. And so they're continuing to do this.

And to me, it just - you know, we're becoming so polarized, you know. You - you know, the people who, you know, either only believe what they hear on Fox or they, you know, take an opposite view. And it's scary to think of how, you know, people just assume that there are no facts anymore when there are facts.

GROSS: Well, Adam Entous, thank you for your reporting. And thank you for coming on our show.

ENTOUS: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Adam Entous' profile of Hunter Biden was published in The New Yorker last July. His article in the current issue is titled "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide to Kill." After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the new crime drama "Tommy" starring Edie Falco. It premieres tonight on CBS. This is FRESH AIR.

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