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How one Christian legal group is shaping policy, from abortion to LGBTQ rights


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Christian conservative movement's most influential arm is the Alliance Defending Freedom, writes my guest, David Kirkpatrick in The New Yorker in an article titled "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe." The Alliance Defending Freedom, the ADF, is an activist legal group that works through the courts where it's been very successful. Overturning Roe v. Wade is one of 15 Supreme Court cases that the ADF has won. Others cited by Kirkpatrick include allowing employer-sponsored health insurance to exclude birth control, rolling back limits on government support for religious organizations, blocking pandemic-related public health rules and establishing the right of a baker to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

The ADF's current goals include restricting access to the abortion pill, mifepristone, or banning it altogether, as well as limiting the authority of the FDA, which approved the pill and restricting LGBTQ rights with an emphasis on children and adults who identify as transgender. A little later, we'll talk with Kirkpatrick about his interview last week with one of the leaders of Hamas about the attack on Israel. David Kirkpatrick is a staff writer at The New Yorker. For 22 years, he was a reporter for The New York Times. He covered the Christian conservative movement and later covered the Arab Spring. During the Trump administration, he investigated ethically questionable ties between members of the administration and several Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia. We recorded our interview yesterday morning.

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So it seems to me that the ADF, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, is just not a very well-known group. Is that intentional? Are they trying to avoid public scrutiny?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I think they're increasingly welcoming public scrutiny, to be honest. I think that in recent years they have changed their strategy and no longer are seeking only to appeal to the Christian conservative world but now to reach out to a more mainstream audience, as well.

GROSS: The Justice Department is appealing the mifepristone ruling. Tell us what the ruling was and the argument that the ADF made.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the ADF made quite a striking argument. Mifepristone is a pill used in about half of the abortions performed in the United States, and it has been approved for more than two decades under administrations of both parties. And the ADF went to a district court in Texas on behalf of a group of doctors who said that it offended their conscience that they might have to treat unpleasant consequences - side effects - of this pill. And they persuaded this district court judge in Texas to rule that the pill was wrongly approved. And into the bargain, not only that the FDA had wrongly approved it but that it shouldn't be shipped by mail between states. Because of the pandemic, the FDA under the Biden administration had approved telemedicine prescriptions and mail-order delivery of the medicine.

GROSS: So did they win on all those counts?

KIRKPATRICK: At the district court level, they did. They won a sweeping victory, which, frankly, I think was beyond even their own expectations. Then a stay was immediately issued. It went to an appellate court and quite soon will be before the Supreme Court.

GROSS: So the judge, Matthew Kacsmaryk, who ruled in favor in a lower court, who ruled in favor of the ADF, he's a Trump appointee who had previously worked as the deputy general counsel of First Liberty Institute, which is a conservative Christian advocacy organization that's received grants from the ADF. What does that mean? I mean, is that a conflict of interest?

KIRKPATRICK: We don't usually speak about the past work of a judge as posing a conflict of interest. The question is forum shopping. You know, ADF would say, well, look, our doctors were in Texas, and this was the district court judge we got. But realistically, they looked around the country, they saw a place where there was a judge whose legal background was likely to make him very sympathetic to their point. You know, the group that he worked for is very closely allied with ADF. One thing I learned in this reporting is that he had recently taken an ADF intern to work in his chambers. He's about to have another student from an ADF law program come to his chambers as a clerk. So he's somebody - they had to have a pretty good sense - was friendly to them. And that's why - in all likelihood, that's why they brought the case with the Texas doctors they did in the district that they did.

GROSS: So what are they pushing for now? What is the ADF pushing for now for mifepristone? Do they want a total ban?

KIRKPATRICK: I mean, the ADF would love a total ban. I mean, one of the things I discovered in this reporting is I was given access to an internal conference call among their fundraising department right after the initial district court hearing in Texas. And they were frank at the time that their highest aspirations, you know, a total rescinding of the FDA approval of mifepristone was a super long shot, you know, highly unlikely to happen because it would really be unprecedented for a district court judge to undo an FDA decision, much less an FDA decision 20 years ago. Nonetheless, that's what they got, and they're trying to defend that now at the Supreme Court level.

GROSS: You quote from that tape that you just referred to - I just - I want to quote an excerpt from it. And this is the speaker, the head of development. So this is the fundraising arm of the ADF. He says "this is a massive pushback on the FDA and the Biden administration from a regulatory standpoint. And so, you know, there's just a ton of corruption in the bureaucratic state, and pushing back on these agencies is a big deal." So it sounds like part of their goal is to try to undo the so-called bureaucratic state or administrative state, which is one of the big conservative goals, one of the goals that was pushed by Steve Bannon.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, you know, in America, we have this phenomenon where groups on the left end up caring about other causes on the left and groups on the right end up caring about other causes on the right. And that's just how our partisan system works. You know, you come concerned about global warming, you stick around and you get concerned about the right to abortion because you're on the left. The same thing sort of happens on the right. With ADF, what we're seeing here is this is a 30-year-old group that started out in a position where there really was no - or very little - Christian conservative legal movement, and they looked at a world where there was a constitutional right to abortion, where there were significant barriers between church and state, and they set out to undo both of those things. 30 years later, both of those Supreme Court precedents are overturned. They've become extraordinarily successful. And in some ways, they are looking for the next battle. And I think in that context, they are also reaching out to an increasingly broad audience, as any group does, as it tries to continue to raise money and grow over time.

GROSS: How big was the ADF's role in overturning Roe? both the road leading up to it and the Supreme Court case itself?

KIRKPATRICK: It was enormous. I mean, one reason why I felt comfortable saying that they are now the most influential part of the Christian conservative movement is they're not just, you know, taking on a client who comes to them needing help, they're actually reaching out to legislatures in states around the country and saying, we'd like to help you draft some legislation. In this case, they helped the state of Mississippi draft the abortion ban, which was later challenged in the case that ultimately overturned Roe. Then they acted as lawyers for Mississippi, defending that all the way up to the Supreme Court. And even before that, they'd been laying the groundwork for this for decades, you know, blocking and tackling and trying to establish earlier precedents that, little by little, would winnow down the scope of Roe - to establish, for example, the right of a state to have parental notification laws or waiting periods or notifications for women seeking abortions, all of which over time gradually helped pave the road to the overturning of Roe.

GROSS: Are they trying to overturn the decision that legalized gay marriage?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, that's an interesting question. And I - when I spoke to Kristen Waggoner, who runs the organization, I pressed her on that because the cases that they've brought look precisely like the kinds of cases you would bring if you had a long-term legislative strategy to overturn Obergefell. And, of course, they opposed Obergefell. They continue to believe it was wrongly decided. She said, no, we're not trying to overturn Obergefell now. But at the same time, she continues to believe that it was wrongly decided, and she believes - ADF believes - that it's had all kinds of deleterious consequences for the culture at large, that they - you know, liberals are inclined to think Obergefell was a kind of catching up with or recognizing of the way American public opinion was trending.

Conservatives are inclined to think that, in fact, Obergefell shaped public opinion, that the widespread acceptance - the enormously widespread acceptance now, really, considering where this country was 20 years ago - of same-sex marriage is actually a result of Obergefell. So that's - I can't think of any decision, any precedent now standing, that is more objectionable to ADF and its allies than Obergefell.

GROSS: What else is the ADF doing on behalf of restricting LGBTQ rights?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the crux of the issue for them now, I think, is around transgender youth. Specifically, I think, the place they've had the most success is in sports - you know, the question of whether a girl born as a girl is at a disadvantage when she is forced to compete in a track meet against a girl who was born as a boy. That's a case - you know, they were one of the first to bring those cases - I think possibly the first - to bring a case like that in a court about the rights of those girls born as girls. And that has helped to set off a national wave of legislation in, I think, more than 22 states to try to regulate that. And they continue to fight those battles in courts. There are other issues, as you know, about, you know, schools referring to a student according to the pronoun of their choice, possibly at odds with the wishes of the parents, the questions about what regulations there should be on transition medical care for minors. Those are all issues where ADF is very active at the moment.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer for The New Yorker. He writes about the Alliance Defending Freedom in the article "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We're talking about the Alliance Defending Freedom, an activist Christian conservative legal group. His article about the ADF is titled "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe."

So you write a little bit about Kristen Waggoner, who's the ADF's chief executive and general counsel. And you say that she's said, over time, that liberal government officials were threatening to set up a new kind of police state, one in which dissenters who believe that marriage can involve only a man and a woman are forced to salute the rainbow flags flying outside every town hall, in which teachers are required to indoctrinate children to the belief that gender is not binary, and in which shelters for battered women must make room for trans females. Is that - does that summarize the larger point of view of the ADF?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, I think it does. And to be honest, you know, I think we should take a moment to try to empathize with where they're coming from. You know, suppose you're someone who adheres to the view of sexual ethics that prevailed over this country and most of the world until the 1970s. You think that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the point is to make babies. You might really feel that things have turned against you and against that outlook in a very dramatic way. You know, if you wake up in 2023 and you find there's a constitutional right not only to gay sodomy, but also to same-sex marriage, and schools are, in fact, increasingly teaching that you should certainly feel comfortable with your sexual orientation - and a lot of school psychologists, if a child comes to them and says, you know, I may feel better in the opposite gender from the one I was born, they would say, well, maybe you should explore that. So if you're somebody who has that more traditional view of sexuality, it is a frightening time in some ways.

Now, how does ADF see that? They see that - and the words that they use are often totalitarian. You know, she did speak to me about what she described as a kind of majoritarian, authoritarian world where now that this alternate and more liberal view of sexual ethics has become the majority view in America, it was going to be imposed forcibly, more or less, on those who dissent. And that's definitely their view. They see themselves now as fighting for the free expression of an embattled minority.

GROSS: I just want to mention, you used the word gay sodomy because one of the cases relating to gay rights overturned a sodomy law in Texas. So that's, I imagine, why you used that expression.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, I did. You know, I'm 53 years old. So when I went through college, there was a Supreme Court precedent approving the right of states to criminalize gay sodomy. And that was overturned in 2003. So, you know, I'm old enough to remember when the Constitution spoke differently about that question.

GROSS: The ADF uses the language of the civil rights movement but turns that language against the issues that the civil rights movement and civil liberties groups stand for. Is that fair to say?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, ADF certainly wouldn't put it that way. I mean, that's a liberal view, right? The liberal view is that the civil rights movement is about expanding individual personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to have an abortion, the right of someone to be whatever sexual orientation they want or even to think about their gender identity however they want - that that's all personal freedom and a goal, ultimately, of what we call the civil rights movement. Where ADF is coming from is, some of these questions are about an ideology in terms of sexual ethics. And we're now at a place in American history where the liberal view on those questions of sexual ethics has become the majority view, even the dominant view. And so they would say that they are, in a sense, following in the footsteps of the ACLU in its early history, where it was speaking up for minority perspectives and protecting free speech rights. That's certainly the way they'd like to present themselves now. You know, I think your listeners can decide for themselves whether they think that's overstated.

GROSS: What do opponents of the ADF have to say about the ADF's approach of saying that they support the rights of a minority group, people who oppose LGBTQ rights?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, basically, they said it's double talk, you know, that you are putting the freedom to discriminate, effectively, over the freedom from discrimination. So they think it's completely backwards and, you know, that there will always be a collision there. You know, we live in a world where I can't say, look, I'm a racist. That's my thing. That's my conscience. And so at my restaurant, I won't serve Black people. We have laws against that. And we all believe that is totally wrong. So opponents of ADF would say, look Mr. Website Designer or Mr. Baker, if you refuse a same-sex couple, you are just like that restaurant owner who weren't - won't serve a Black customer. And that's really where the conflict is 'cause there's always, at a certain level, a latent conflict between one person's freedom of expression and another person's freedom of equality.

GROSS: So you got access to some leaked recordings, and one of them is a talk given by Jeffrey Ventrella, who's a senior counsel and senior vice president of academic affairs and training at the ADF. And he designed the curriculum for a number of ADF training programs, including the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, which trains law students in the kind of Christian conservative thinking and tactics of the ADF. So this is part of an internal lecture called Lordship and Liberty, and he's giving the lecture at the Blackstone Fellowship. And this excerpt of the talk is about the role of Christianity in America.


JEFFERY VENTRELLA: Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all. Every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, and therefore, we must cultivate a faithful presence in the courts, in the judiciary and in the academy. In other words, as another guy put it once, something like, to ask Christianity to stay out of certain territory is to ask God not to be God, if he, in fact, is the sovereign Lord. We must champion these things. Champion good law, real law, law that promotes human flourishing for all. And we have those skills as attorneys.

GROSS: And so that was Jeffrey Ventrella, who's a senior counsel and senior vice president of academic affairs and training at the Alliance Defending Freedom. And that tape that we heard was leaked to you by a group called Documented.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes. That's correct.

GROSS: So I don't know. Is he saying that the ADF's goal is creating a Christian nation in the U.S.?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, they would say no. Let's be totally clear about that. They really take offense at the notion that they are advocating some kind of theocracy. And they would say very emphatically that their understanding of what the Bible teaches includes tolerance. You know, what they're saying, actually, in some ways is not that different from what you might hear at a left-leaning or progressive church around New York, who - that would say, you know, the Bible teaches us that we should all have justice for all, and it teaches us what the tax code should look like. And it teaches us about social welfare. So that idea that a believer's sense of ethics might influence the way they approach politics isn't so controversial, but it's the tone of the thing.

You know, when he's speaking at private - in private like that to a group of Christian conservative lawyers, it just doesn't sound pluralistic, right? The tone is, you know, Christianity - correctly - was the dominant religion at the time of the founding, was, in the minds of many founders, drawn upon in their thinking about the founding of our Constitution. But they're not emphasizing pluralism in the way that liberals would, in the way that even a liberal church would now. Their tone is, we're not going to apologize for this. You know, Christianity is our blueprint for the world, and that's what it means to be a believer. And while that might be fine, and they would say that doesn't necessarily require imposing our beliefs on others, in this day, in the pluralistic, secular - if you will - culture that we live in, that sounds out of touch.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. He writes about the Alliance Defending Freedom in the article "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe." The Alliance is an activist, Christian conservative legal group. We'll talk more about it, and we'll also talk about Hamas. He recently interviewed one of the leaders of Hamas. But first, we have to take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with David Kirkpatrick about the Alliance Defending Freedom, which he describes as the Christian conservative movement's most influential arm. He writes about the ADF in an article titled "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe." It's published in The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. The ADF is an activist legal group that works through the courts, where it's been very successful. The case overturning Roe v. Wade is one of 15 Supreme Court cases that the ADF has won. Its mission now includes banning mifepristone, the abortion pill, and restricting LGBTQ rights.

Some very prominent people have taught or taken the lectures provided by the ADF's educational arm. So who are some of those people?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the one that's the most interesting is Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, because she taught there many times. And yet during her confirmation hearings, she told the Judiciary Committee that she wasn't necessarily aware of all of ADF positions, and she didn't look into or thoroughly research all the positions of the places where she went to give talks. Another lecturer, I think, that - in one of the same years that she spoke was Senator Josh Hawley, whose wife is a lawyer for ADF.

GROSS: Two very prominent congressmen have been connected to the ADF - Steve Scalise, who lost the bid to be House speaker, and Jim Jordan, who, as we record this Tuesday morning, is hoping to get enough votes to become the House speaker. Last fall, they hosted an ADF reception for newly elected lawmakers. What's their connection to the ADF?

KIRKPATRICK: I'm not sure that either of them has a specific connection to the ADF, but I think what's happening here, as we mentioned earlier, is the ADF has become a more and more important part of the conservative movement and the Christian conservative movement. You know, they're not just arguing in court. They're lobbying. They don't call it that, but they're advising legislators in states around the country to pass legislation that is in line with the clauses they favor.

In recent years, they're doing the same thing at the federal level with the United States Congress. They have an ambassadors program where civilians - you know, citizens who are not lawyers but just supporters of ADF - can hear about their ideas and help promote them in their communities. They have a network of churches around the country and ministries that they provide legal advice to. So they're really not just a law firm, if you will, but kind of a movement. And so in that sense, it makes sense that a couple of prominent Republican leaders in Congress would find it convenient to join up with the ADF in a reception for new lawmakers.

GROSS: Are a lot of the lawyers or judges who they train active now in legal defense or in the courts?

KIRKPATRICK: Who they train - yes. I think what you're referring to there is this fellowship they run, the Blackstone Fellowship. So that's for first-year law students in the summer between their first and second year. And that has become a pretty big thing for them. I think they're doing, you know, 125 or so law students a year. And alumni of that program go on often to clerk for federal judges or state judges or work in government. That means that lots of clerks working for federal judges right now have come out of this ADF training program when the judges that they are working for will be hearing ADF cases.

GROSS: Earlier this year, two federal judges resolved lawsuits, in part by ordering litigants to submit to ADF training in the First Amendment. One of the cases was a case against Southwest Airlines by a flight attendant who claims she'd been fired because of her opposition to abortion. Southwest is appealing the case. But how was ADF training - how did that figure into the decision?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, in that case, what the judge said - he approved a settlement that required the lawyers for Southwest to take lessons in the First Amendment from ADF. And then - Southwest is now appealing that. I don't think we know how it's going to turn out. But it struck me as extraordinary because I consider ADF to be a partisan group. You know, they take on issues which are live issues about which a lot of Americans disagree from one side. And here is a federal judge saying, lawyers for Southwest, go to ADF to hear what the law is and what tradition is about the First Amendment.

GROSS: You say that during the previous Supreme Court session, alumni of the ADF's training program clerked for Amy Coney Barrett and Sam Alito at the Supreme Court and helped them with the web designer's case - the web designer who said she wouldn't design a website for - was it a gay wedding?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, same-sex wedding.

GROSS: Yeah, and also for the Justice Department request to stay the mifepristone ban. So that's reaching pretty high up.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. I thought that was a real measure of just how mainstream the Blackstone Fellowship and ADF has become and how successful. Now, obviously, you know, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Amy Coney Barrett don't need help from their law clerks to figure out their ideology, and they probably knew exactly where they stood on that question before they brought on those clerks. But it does tell you something about how close ADF and its line of thinking has come to the real centers of legal power in the country.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In a recent article, he writes about the Alliance Defending Freedom. The article's called "The Next Targets For The Group That Overturned Roe." He also has a new article in which he interviews one of the leaders of Hamas, and we're going to talk about that after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Earlier in the show, we were talking about his article on the Christian conservative legal group, the Alliance Defending Freedom. We're going to pivot to the Middle East. Kirkpatrick reported on the region when he was the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times during the Arab Spring. Late last week, he and his colleague Adam Rasgon interviewed a longtime political leader of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzouk. Their article about the interview with Marzouk is posted on The New Yorker website.

Marzouk is living in exile in Qatar. He's 72 now. He's been a member of Hamas for many years, right?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. He was really in on the ground floor. I mean, he was one of its earliest political leaders when the group first came together in 1987.

GROSS: I was really surprised to read that he says he learned about the invasion of Israel after it happened on Saturday morning. How come he didn't know about it?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, you've got to remember that Hamas is acutely aware of Israeli surveillance. They're probably also aware that wherever their exiled leaders are - in this case, in Doha - they also are going to be under a lot of surveillance. So if they want - if Hamas wants any hope of preserving the secrecy around a campaign like the one they launched on October 7, they've got to be very, very quiet about it, and they can't be blabbing about that to their political leaders abroad. You know, it's also true that the Hamas political leaders and military leaders are sometimes complicated to sort out. You know, you - the - they say that the political leaders set the strategy and direction and the military leaders execute it. But it's also a little bit true that the political leaders are, in some cases, speaking and defending decisions made by the military leaders. So it's a complicated relationship between the two sides of the group.

GROSS: Did he offer any insights into how Hamas evaded Israeli intelligence and the Israeli military?

KIRKPATRICK: No, he did not. In fact, at certain points, he sounded almost surprised by their own success. You know, Hamas, like the rest of the world, believes that Israel has one of the most formidable intelligence services, and plenty of Hamas plots have been foiled by Israeli spying. And he told us that he was honestly quite surprised to see just how successful and how far their fighters were able to get.

GROSS: He said that Hamas was ready to release women, children and the elderly who were being held captive by Hamas, in addition to releasing citizens of other countries if Israel ceased its military campaign. How do you interpret that?

KIRKPATRICK: He presented it as a gesture of magnanimity, basically. You know, we're civilized people, we'll release these noncombatants. I think more realistically, it was an effort to begin negotiations. You know, he was saying, look, if you stop the bombing, we'll release these prisoners. And I have to believe that Hamas is hoping they will get something in exchange for their many hostages.

GROSS: How did he justify the attacks?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, we pressed him quite a bit about that. Not so much about the justification as about the timing. You know, from his point of view, Hamas is a resistance group. Hamas is about liberating Palestine, liberating the Palestinian people, ending the occupation. So from that point of view, of course they attacked Israel. That's what they do. They're a group to attack Israel.

On the other hand, you know, Israel's been there for a while, and a lot of their complaints are long-standing. And so we pressed him quite a bit about why now. And what emerged to me, what sort of surprised me was the desperation, if you will. And he wouldn't use that word, but that was my takeaway, that they find themselves in a situation where the Israeli government is leaning further to the right than ever before. It's messages have indicated a lack of regard for the Palestinian cause, which is new - a new level of disregard from the Palestinian point of view. And at the same time, a lot of the Arab states, which, you know, at one time were supporters of the Palestinian cause or allies of the Palestinian cause, have begun to open relations with Israel. You know, several of the Gulf states did it under the Trump administration, now Saudi Arabia, the most important remaining Arab state, is clearly on its way to recognizing Israel.

You know, and I should say, part of what this right-leaning government in Israel had done has been to promote more and more settlements - to defend those settlements when there are instances of violence between settlers in the West Bank and the Palestinians. A lot of Palestinians have been killed - 200 over the course of this year. They've talked about, you know, there have been ministers in the Netanyahu government who have been visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in a way that, to Palestinians, looks like an effort to sort of increase the Jewish presence in this Muslim holy site. So all of this is really quite discouraging. So what Abu Marzouk said to us is, look, we are under all these pressures. We have tried for years to explore coexistence with Israel in various ways, and none of that is working.

GROSS: Did he have any impression about whether the conflict between Israel and Hamas will lead to a wider regional war?

KIRKPATRICK: We pressed him about that, as well. You know, there's been a lot of attention to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group which also champions the Palestinian cause. And would they escalate...

GROSS: And they're also, like, funded by Iran, as is Hamas.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, to a - much more so. You know, Hezbollah is much more directly and fully a client of Iran. It's a Shiite group like the Shia government of Iran. And so there's been a lot of attention to the question of whether or not they were going to escalate tensions against Israel on another front and potentially widen this into a broader war, a two-front war or even a conflict with Iran. And Abu Marzouk was surprisingly sweeping in his denials that that was not going to take place. What he said was basically, look, we wish. We would love a regional war. That would be great for us. We would like to see a conflict against Israel. It's not going to happen. He said very firmly that he expected Hezbollah to abide by its existing cease-fire with Israel, and there was not going to be a larger regional conflict. Now, some of your listeners will say, well, maybe that's strategic. This is a war. Lots of people lie. Perhaps. But, you know, given that he said, we wish, I don't think it's going to happen at the moment. It sounded convincing.

GROSS: He told you that one of his concerns is that in spite of this war between Israel and Hamas, that it might delay the Saudis and the Israelis normalizing relations, but it's not going to doom the future of that relationship.

KIRKPATRICK: You know, given the extraordinary toll that the Israeli retaliation is taking on the Palestinian population of Gaza - you know, very predictably, many more Palestinians have died already than the number of Israelis killed in the attack. And the Israeli retaliation is just beginning, right? So, very predictably, very foreseeably Palestinians in Gaza are suffering, and they're going to suffer a lot more. And so we pressed Abu Marzouk quite often about, why was this worth it? You know, what are you going to get for this? And one of the things that's come up in the West is, you know, are they trying to stop the Saudi recognition of Israel, the growing indication that Saudi Arabia is going to open diplomatic relations with Israel? And I was surprised by how frank he was, that he didn't even think they could. You know, he said, basically, look, it's going to happen. All we can hope for is possibly to delay it.

GROSS: How did you get an interview with him?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's my colleague, Adam Rasgon. He had worked for The Jerusalem Post and for The New York Times in Jerusalem and covered Palestinian affairs very closely. And so he was quite immediately in touch with Abu Marzouk after the attack to try to find out what he was thinking. I had interviewed Abu Marzouk years ago when I was the Times bureau chief in Cairo, so I knew it would be an interesting interview. And I was eager to team up with Adam. But Adam had the first contact.

GROSS: How important is his role in Hamas?

KIRKPATRICK: He's been a senior figure in Hamas from the very beginning. I mean, he was in on the ground floor when the organization was founded in 1987, when it first came together, and, at different times, I think, has been their top political leader. So he's certainly a significant voice within the organization.

GROSS: So you talked to somebody who bears some responsibility for a horrific attack on Israelis. I mean, we're talking about slaughter. We're talking about, you know, the slaughter of young people at a concert, the slaughter of elderly people, of babies. How do you talk to somebody who represents that group, who is a leader of Hamas, and kind of stay calm in the interview and figure out, you know, what questions to ask and how to, like, not get angry?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's something we thought about a lot, especially from the perspective of handing someone a microphone, you know, someone whose organization has just committed a horrific attack, killed a lot of civilians, broken international law, committed war crimes. You don't want to be allowing that person to promote their cause through The New Yorker website. We were careful to make it not simply a Q&A where he gets to say his piece, but a kind of reported dialogue, where we set out to ask him the questions that a lot of readers want to know, which is why did Hamas do this now? What's in it for Hamas, given the low likelihood of any meaningful, long-term, tangible change and the enormous cost to the Palestinian civilians? So we stayed focused on those questions.

And we went to him because these are the only people who can answer those questions. Those are the questions that our readers and the world wants to know right now, and the only people who can possibly answer them are the leaders of Hamas. So you're not going to find out those things if you're not willing to have that conversation. And the important thing is just to have that conversation in a careful, measured, fair way where you're not just giving him a microphone, but at the same time allowing his voice to be heard.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer for The New Yorker. The article he co-wrote about his interview with Mousa Abu Marzouk, one of the leaders of Hamas, is posted on The New Yorker website. We'll hear more of our interview that we recorded yesterday after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with David Kirkpatrick. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. A few days ago, he and Adam Rasgon published an article on the New Yorker website about their interview with Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior political leader of Hamas.

How do you respond to Marzouk's statement that, we have tried - we being Hamas - we've tried for years to explore coexistence with Israel when they've stated, as a goal, the destruction of Israel?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the answer is more complicated than that, you know, as it always is in these kinds of things. You know, if you look at Hamas' behavior in recent years, they have shown signs of a willingness to coexist with Israel. You know, they have negotiated, through third parties, for work permits, fishing rights, things like that, to better the lives of people inside Gaza. They've issued political statements, which, in some ways, looked like a retraction of the antisemitism in their original charter. They've made noises about accepting Israel in the long term. They've been willing to go in to elections with the Palestinian Authority, which is a creation of the Oslo Accords and, by its very existence, you know, is about a two-state solution. So their actions have actually shown some willingness to coexist with Israel. He's not entirely wrong about that.

At the same time, they never abandoned their calls for true Palestinian independence. They never abandoned their calls for the right of all Palestinian refugees around the world to return, and they certainly never gave up their weapons. So it's a more complicated case. You know, a lot of Israelis are now saying their talk of coexistence was all a lie. This was a ruse. They lulled us into a false sense of confidence, false sense of security, so that they could build up and prepare for this attack. Abu Marzouk is saying, no, we really tried and it didn't work. You didn't give us much, you know? You didn't give us enough. There wasn't enough movement towards a real Palestinian self-determination.

GROSS: Surely he must know that Israel would have a very massive response to the invasion of Israel by Hamas. And thousands of Gazans are dying now in the bombing campaign. And he must have known something like that would happen. And they have no place to go. I mean, their - the borders are closed. They've been told - people in the north have been told to, you know, flee their homes and go south. But people who've done that have been killed in bombs in the south and in a convoy along the way to the south. Homes are being destroyed. When this is over, a lot of people will be homeless. They'll have no home to return to. Do you think he feels any responsibility for that? I mean, because the people who he's trying to defend are going to be in much worse shape right now, those who survive.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. We should acknowledge that his older brother was killed in an airstrike, you know, shortly before we interviewed him. You know, I met him 10 years ago. We talked to him this week. I think he must be sensible to the cost that Gazans are paying. He told us he thought that Gazans were ready to pay that price, you know, that the Palestinian people of Gaza were committed to the struggle, and they would pay an even higher price for the cause of ending the Israeli occupation. Now, no one's asking the people in Gaza. They don't have a voice. We don't get to hear what they have to say about this. But I honestly can't imagine what it's like to be a leader of Hamas and brought this kind of retaliation on the people of Gaza. I just can't wrap my head around that position.

GROSS: You know, it was reported that the leader of Iran and MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, the leader of Saudi Arabia, had a 45-minute phone call the other day, and it was the first time they spoke. What's the meaning of that? What's the significance of that, do you think?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I think it's an indication that both sides are eager to avoid a regional war at this time.

GROSS: That's a hopeful sign.

KIRKPATRICK: That's a hopeful sign, but let's not get carried away. You know, we're still in a situation where Iran is on the brink of developing a nuclear bomb, certainly within sight of it. Saudi Arabia is pushing for help from the United States to develop nuclear power, ostensibly for peaceful energy purposes. But they're making no secret of the fact that they feel they need nuclear parity with Iran as a matter of self-defense. You know, yes, the two leaders spoke, you know, at this moment of conflagration between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They're eager not to go to war against each other, or so it seems. At the same time, we could be on the precipice of a new arms race in the region. So let's not get carried away with what a good sign that is.

GROSS: Right. Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: My interview with David Kirkpatrick was recorded yesterday. His article "What Was Hamas Thinking?" written with Adam Rasgon, is on The New Yorker website. Kirkpatrick's article about the Christian conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom is on the website and in a print edition of The New Yorker.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Greta Lee, the star of the film "Past Lives." Our film critic Justin Chang calls it an exquisitely thoughtful and moving film and the most affecting love story he's seen in ages. Greta Lee's other credits include the TV shows "Russian Doll," "Girls," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "High Maintenance." She's currently a star of the series "The Morning Show."


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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