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Journalist Digs Into Years Of Corruption, Dysfunction At Border Protection Agency

Trump said he would hire 5,000 new border patrol agents, but has fallen short of that promise. Garrett Graff discusses the leadership vacuum that's plagued the agency and worsened the border crisis.

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Other segments from the episode on July 18, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 18, 2019: Interview with Garrett Graff; Review of the film The Lion King.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Behind the migrant center horrors on the southern border lies an agency plagued by years of dysfunction. And Trump is only its latest problem. My guest, Garrett Graff, writes that in his new article, "The Border Patrol Hits A Breaking Point," published this week in Politico Magazine. The Border Patrol is part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. Graff writes about the long-standing problems within the agency, including a culture of violence and corruption.

In spite of Trump's fiery rhetoric about the threat at the southern border, Graff says Trump's promises to invest in the Border Patrol have gone unfulfilled. Trump's newly appointed acting Director of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan has expressed anti-immigration views and supports the immigration raids that started Sunday.

Graff has written two other articles in Politico about problems in the Border Patrol, one published in 2016, the other, in 2014. Graff is a former editor at Politico and has covered federal law enforcement for over a decade. He's also a contributing writer with Wired. He's written several books including one about the FBI under Robert Mueller. Garrett Graff, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GARRETT GRAFF: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: You call Customs and Border Protection America's most troubled law enforcement agency. What makes it qualified for that dubious distinction?

GRAFF: Customs and Border Protection is the nation's largest law enforcement agency, with 45,000 gun-carrying officers and agents. That's larger than the NYPD. It's larger than the Coast Guard. And yet at the same time, it has been wracked by what is now really more than a decade of an epidemic of crime, and corruption and mismanagement that is unparalleled in American policing. From 2005 to 2012, there was one CBP officer or agent arrested every single day. And even today, there's an officer or agent arrested for misconduct or violence, drug smuggling, even murder, every 36 hours.

GROSS: And then, like, a new development that was discovered is that there's a Facebook group of Border Protection agents with approximately 9,500 members in which agents have made racist and misogynist comments. And the chief of the Border Patrol has been part of that group. What kinds of comments? Have you read these posts?

GRAFF: Yeah. And this is the latest example of what has been a very long-running and actually well-known insular racist and misogynistic culture that has pervaded the work of the Border Patrol and CBP really since its founding in 2003. The agents and officers routinely use misogynistic and racist terms to even refer to the people that they are detaining on the border, the people that they are entrusted with keeping safe and rescuing and detaining.

That - and probably the most egregious example - it's been shown in court that agents actually refer to people caught crossing the border as Tonks, which is a phrase that agents will tell you derives from the sound that comes from when you hit one of them over the head with your flashlight.

GROSS: Wow. And there's also a new commemorative coin that was issued that I think is supposed to be satirical? Would you describe the coin?

GRAFF: Yeah. This is a commemorative challenge coin, which is a series of coins that you see a lot of government agencies in law enforcement and the military and the intelligence community trade around to honor individual units, individual operations, task forces and the like.

And this commemorative coin, which is unofficial, was circulating inside the Border Patrol. And it appears to commemorate - this was uncovered by ProPublica - what the agents trading the coin called the new patrol, which is lamenting how these agents, who signed up to fight terrorists and drug cartels, are actually spending their days now effectively working as humanitarian relief workers along the southern border, processing asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle countries in Central America - Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

GROSS: Let me read how the coin was described in a ProPublica article.

GRAFF: Sure. Yeah.

GROSS: So on one side, it says, keep the caravans coming. And there's an image of a massive parade of people carrying a Honduran flag. The other side features the Border Patrol logo and three illustrations - a Border Patrol agent bottle-feeding an infant, an agent fingerprinting a teenage boy wearing a backwards baseball cap and a U.S. Border Patrol van. The text on that side reads, feeding, processing, hospital, transport.

So this is not the job the agents signed up for, apparently. That's part of the problem that you see at the Border Patrol, the mismatch between what the agents thought they were signing up for and what the job has actually turned out to be. Would you talk about that a little bit?

GRAFF: Yeah. So and this really goes back to the founding of CBP and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which, it's hard to remember today just how poorly policed and secured our borders were before 9/11. The Border Patrol's own studies showed at the time that the Border Patrol did not have operational control over 97% of the border.

And so after 9/11, what you saw was this flood of new money coming into CBP. And in the space of just a couple of years, the Border Patrol actually went out and doubled in size, peaking in the early Obama years at about 21,000 agents. And what that recruiting effort really aimed at was trying to create this elite counterterrorism force.

And if you, actually, even today look at CBP's website, catching terrorists and stopping terrorist weapons is still the first thing that they show on their About page and what they list as a typical duty for a CBP officer or Border Patrol agent. And so this massive new influx of agents was recruited using - these recruiting campaigns made this look like, you know, effectively a new frontier cavalry, lots of great toys, ATVs, helicopters, horseback patrols and then lots and lots of weapons. And what these agents joined to do was fight terrorists and fight drug cartels, fight drug smugglers. And that is not what most of the Border Patrol ends up doing most of the time now.

For the last six years, they have been dealing with this human flood of asylum-seekers along the border who are not trying to run away from the Border Patrol. They're actually trying to turn themselves in. And I said in the piece, the problem - one of the major problems facing the Border Patrol today is that it went out and built its ranks by recruiting Rambo when it actually turns out that what the Border Patrol needs is Mother Teresa.

GROSS: So this gets to, like, another issue in terms of the hiring of people in Customs and Border Protection. So the agency is created in 2004 after 9/11. There's a big influx of money, as you just said. A lot of people are hired as agents, but because there's such a rush to hire people and so much money to hire them quickly, the vetting was not very good. What are some of the problems that we now know CBP ran into in terms of vetting and hiring agents?

GRAFF: The problem of rapid growth in any law enforcement agency is actually well-known and documented. Any police agency that tries to grow too quickly runs into integrity problems. The agency actually lowered its recruiting standards. It lowered its training standards. It sent agents out into the field without conducting adequate background checks before they were hired. And under that surge of new employees, basically the management processes, the integrity processes, the supervisors couldn't keep up. And the agency was flooded with people who should have never been given a gun and a badge by the U.S. government. As we discussed, there were numerous arrests, an epidemic of crime and corruption that hit CBP.

One former CBP commissioner actually told me on the record that they made mistakes and, in fact, hired cartel members. And what you began to see by late 2009, running through 2014, was both a huge rise in on-the-job excessive force complaints, shootings that fell far outside the protocols for modern policing, and also this incredible wave of crime and corruption of agents participating in drug smuggling and human trafficking themselves, of taking bribes, of looking past illegal immigrants crossing through their checkpoints.

It got so bad that by 2013, actually, the DHS officer who was in charge of investigating misconduct in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas felt that he fell so far behind in investigating CBP misconduct that he began falsifying records and was indicted himself.

GROSS: So President Trump has added new problems on the southern border. But in terms of Border Patrol, there were plenty of pre-existing problems.

GRAFF: Yeah. And actually, the - President Trump has not helped. He's actually exacerbated some of these problems. The Border Patrol really thought that Donald Trump was going to be the golden years for the agency.

The first time that Donald Trump actually wore his Make America Great hat, it was to visit the southern border alongside the Border Patrol union, to tour it, to build the wall - to talk about building the wall. That became a cornerstone of his platform. And Donald Trump actually won the first endorsement ever by the Border Patrol agent union. That became the first union in America to back him.

And they had these grand plans that Donald Trump was going to build the wall and grow the agency and help it become what everyone wanted it to be. And, in fact, Donald Trump has not delivered on that, that actually, while he signed an executive order calling for 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, the agency today is actually smaller than it was under Barack Obama. It's lost nearly 2,000 agents so far and is losing about 25 agents a pay period right now because of how challenging the job is and how poorly it pays.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff, who's been writing about the Border Patrol since 2014, including a new piece in Politico Magazine, where he used to be editor. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff, a journalist and author who's covered federal law enforcement for more than a decade and has been writing about the Border Patrol. He has a new piece this week in Politico Magazine titled "The Patrol Hits A Breaking Point: Behind The Migrant Center Horrors Lies An Agency Plagued By Years Of Dysfunction - And Trump Is Only Its Latest Problem."

So you've done a couple of other long pieces for Politico about Border Patrol, including one in 2016 in which you went to the Rio Grande Valley to see for yourself what was happening at the border there. And I'd like to compare what you saw with what's happening now three years later. But first, describe the importance of the Rio Grande Valley in the larger story of the southern border and migration.

GRAFF: The Rio Grande Valley - centered around McAllen, Texas - is really the center of this migrant crisis and has been, frankly, for five or six years now. What we are seeing on the southern border is different in scale but not by much from what we've actually been experiencing along the southern border really since 2013 and 2014. And the Rio Grande Valley is this epicenter of that, largely because it is the point in Mexico closest to the Central American countries where people are fleeing this gang violence and drug violence.

And so they walk up. They ride the train. They, in some way, cross through Mexico. And the first place that they come to is the Rio Grande Valley. And it's not uncommon and has not been uncommon for years to see hundreds of people and now, in the most recent iteration, sometimes thousands of people a day crossing the border along the Rio Grande Valley. And this sector of the Border Patrol is the largest in the country. It has about 3,200 agents whose responsibility is just this one section of the border.

And what makes it so interesting and so complex is that the Border Patrol in many ways is an agency geared to lie in wait for smugglers or human traffickers and then chase them, expecting what the Patrol calls runaways rather than give-ups. And yet, for most of these last five or six years, what the Border Patrol has been experiencing on a daily basis are these give-ups, these families crossing, these children crossing and seeking out, actually, Border Patrol agents, that they - they're trying to find the first person on the U.S. side of the border that they can surrender to.

And as you mentioned, I went down to the border the week before the 2016 Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump was going to be crowned the nominee, to look at the reality of his plan to implement a wall. And, you know, that night that I was out with the Border Patrol, you know, three years ago, really, at this point, we caught - I believe it was - 37 migrants in less than 30 minutes, seven different groups of people that we ran across and that, you know, these were people desperate to find a Border Patrol agent.

I mean, they would have surrendered to me happily as a white guy in khakis along the border because what they were doing was they were coming here to apply for asylum and that that's a legal right that they have. And they were trying to start that process as quickly as they could when they got across the border.

GROSS: So you also write that people know the drill. They had their papers ready to show to the Border Patrol agents. They had family members they would wait with while awaiting a hearing on their asylum status. They knew exactly how to do it. I'm just wondering, during this period in 2016 when you were at the Rio Grande Valley border crossing area, were their cages like we're seeing now?

GRAFF: Yes, the cages were actually at that point - of course, CBP would not describe them as cages. They would describe them as detention facilities. But the detention facilities were in fact a good step forward because this was - 2016 at that point was really year two or three of what was then known as the UAC crisis, the unaccompanied minors, unaccompanied children crisis. So these were children coming by themselves across the border.

And the Border Patrol was actually quite proud of these new facilities that they had built to deal with these asylum seekers on an industrial scale. You know, these were converted warehouses where they would house these children while they were being processed. And, you know, the Border Patrol knew exactly what it was doing at that point. You know, when we were pulling up to these groups back in 2016, you know, the agents are hopping out of their pickup trucks with clipboards in hands, not guns, because they knew that these people were trying to turn themselves in.

And that was exactly what was happening at that point for two years and is continuing to happen today. And the Border Patrol facilities are really only meant to house these detainees for a couple of hours. And what was happening back then was that these people were then getting dropped off effectively at the McAllen Greyhound station, where they would take their buses to their family members inside the United States with all of the paperwork that would - they would need for asylum proceedings in the future.

At that point, you know, the immigration courts were backlogged for two or three years and that this was - this is in some ways the same situation that we're seeing today, except the Trump administration has decreed that these people should not be released anymore. And so they're being held really long past when the Border Patrol was intending for them to be held simply because the rest of government is actually incapable of handling the influx of the migrants and asylum seekers.

And this is where I think the Border Patrol has a lot of righteous indignation about the bad headlines that it's getting because for all of these squalid conditions that you're seeing on the news, well, that's not what the Border Patrol was designed to do. Their job is to detain these folks and turn them over as quickly as they can to either ICE or the Department of Health and Human Services and that in neither instance are those agencies able to take the migrants that they need to be taking, and so they're being left to languish with the Border Patrol.

GROSS: My guest is Garrett Graff. His new article in Politico Magazine is titled "The Border Patrol Hits A Breaking Point." We'll talk more after a break. And Justin Chang will review the new remake of Disney's "The Lion King." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Garrett Graff. He's a former editor at Politico and has written extensively for Politico about the migrant crisis on the southern border and dysfunction in the U.S. Border Patrol. His new article in Politico Magazine is titled "The Border Patrol Hits A Breaking Point."

When we left off, we were talking about the terrible conditions in migrant detention centers on the southern border in the Rio Grande Valley, where the majority of migrants from the Central American countries Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras cross over into the U.S.

Is it your impression that President Trump wants the conditions to be bad as a deterrent to other migrants, or do you think this is just kind of inadvertent - an inadvertent crisis...

GRAFF: No, I think it is...

GROSS: ...In terms of the cages?

GRAFF: I think that this is a very carefully designed crisis by the Trump administration. I think it seems clear from everything that we have seen over the last three years that the cruelty at the border is the point of the Trump administration's policy.

GROSS: What's the point of being cruel?

GRAFF: It plays to what Trump sees as his base. He was elected on this platform of getting tough on immigration. And I think he thinks that it also discourages people from trying to make the journey in the first place. But it - you know, we now have years of evidence that that's not the case.

And in fact, in many ways, it seems like the Border Patrol policies along the border are actually doing more to hurt the situation than to discourage it. And you know, I think at its most basic level, the Border Patrol and CBP is failing to meet its moral human obligation to these people showing up at our border, seeking American help and protection.

You know, it's worth noting that there have been 12 migrants who have died in CBP custody since September. And in the decade prior to September, not a single migrant had died in CBP custody. I mean, something radical has changed in the way that Border Patrol and CBP is fulfilling its mission, and it's leaving these migrants in deadly jeopardy.

GROSS: I'm wondering - I don't know if you can answer this - if many Border Patrol agents are turning against President Trump because of this humanitarian crisis at the border or whether they're blaming Obama for it.

GRAFF: I think that they are becoming more and more disaffected by Donald Trump. I had one - in this article this week - had a former Border Patrol union official say to me, quote, "Trump is not delivering." And I don't know whether that - I don't know whether I could go as far to say that agents are turning against the president, but they are certainly feeling let down by the promises that he made and has been unable to deliver on.

GROSS: So a lot of the children who we're seeing in cages now - not all of them, but a lot of them - came across the border, unaccompanied by an adult. But you write that that used to be a much bigger issue than it is now that there's fewer children crossing the border on their own now than there were back during the Obama administration.

GRAFF: Yeah.

GROSS: And yet, now we see all these cages of children that we had never seen before.

GRAFF: Exactly. And that is a major impact of the Trump administration - is on how children are treated as they cross the border. During the Obama administration, you saw what they called this UAC crisis, the unaccompanied minors - children crossing by themselves, fleeing Central American gang violence and drug violence.

And once those children crossed, they were - they turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. They were processed as asylum seekers and then, for the most part, handed off to family members inside the United States. And you know, when I was down at the border, you would see these children crossing, you know, with a telephone number, you know, written on their arm or carrying a telephone number for, you know, let's say, an aunt in Chicago, you know, or a cousin in Texas that they should call to arrange transportation to stay with. And that was a very routine part of this crisis during the Obama years.

For the last couple of years, though, what we're seeing today and what has garnered the headlines under the Trump administration are what the Border Patrol and CBP calls family units. So this is sort of whole families crossing together. You know, you see these news reports about these migrant caravans coming up together and attempting to cross the border - you know, parents and children, sometimes even grandparents, uncles, cousins, et cetera, all as one unit.

And there are very strict court regulations about how long children can be detained inside the U.S. And so what the Trump administration has begun doing - and this was their child separation policy that garnered so much controversy last summer - was to begin to basically break apart those families and hold on to the adults - hold on to the parents - and let the children go off into their own separate process. And the record keeping was so poor during that height of that process that the government now admits that hundreds of children are likely permanently orphaned because the government has no ability to reconstruct who they crossed with and who their parents are.

GROSS: How do we allow that to happen?

GRAFF: I think it is one of the single greatest scandals of the Trump administration, and it's certainly one of the most inhumane things that I can think of America doing in modern history.

GROSS: But this leads to another issue that you bring up, which is that Customs and Border Protection - you know, they have a lot of armed agents, and their qualifications are to do - like, catch terrorists and catch drug smugglers. A lot of the work that needs to be done at the border is administrative. And you make it seem like they need more administrative staff as opposed to, like, more agents who know how to use weapons.

GRAFF: Yeah. And this is a twofold problem, right? So on the one hand, these agents - highly trained, armed law enforcement officers - are now spending a lot of their days sitting in these detention facilities, processing migrants, you know, shuttling people back and forth to hospital care, helping to feed children, you know, go out to the local store and buy more toilet paper and really serving as humanitarian rescue workers in a way that they don't really need to be armed law enforcement to do.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was the CBP commissioner during the final two years of the Obama administration and oversaw what is really the sole period of real reform and progress culturally within CBP over the last decade - he told me in this piece this week that he thinks it's worth reconsidering whether CBP should reinvent its workforce and add a civilian administrative, humanitarian wing to its employees so that those are the people who are helping to process and work on these asylum-seeking migrant cases.

The second prong of this problem is that you have these armed law enforcement officers simultaneously not doing the work that they actually are supposed to be doing, which is trying to break up and interdict drug smuggling and human trafficking organizations across the southern border. One...

GROSS: Is that because they're too busy processing people?

GRAFF: Exactly and that the drug cartels know this and take advantage of this, that these asylum-seeking migrants could legally just walk up to one of the official ports of entry and ask for asylum. And instead, the cartels, which control these sort of migrant channels up to the border, send them in between the official ports of entry where they run into the Border Patrol and not the official ports of entry where they would see the so-called Office of Field Operations, the blue-uniformed agents.

And so the drug cartels know, you know, if you send a group of, you know, 20, 30, a hundred, 200 asylum seekers across in the middle of the Rio Grande border sector, then you're going to tie up, you know, most of the shift of the Border Patrol agents for that period of time to help process those migrants and allow it to be easier for you as the cartel to smuggle the drugs and the human-smuggling trafficking that you want to do elsewhere.

You know, you're basically sort of forcing the Border Patrol to surge its resources to deal with what the Border Patrol calls the give-ups while freeing up the rest of the border for what the Border Patrol would call the runaways, the people who are actively trying to smuggle themselves inside the United States because they're carrying drugs, or they're criminals trying to get into the United States.

GROSS: Do I understand correctly? Are you saying that the drug cartels are intentionally sending people over the border in the Rio Grande Valley to divert attention from the drug smugglers who are smuggling drugs in other areas?

GRAFF: Exactly, and that's something that, you know, the Border Patrol has recognized for years. And it's part of why they are so frustrated with this current situation and crisis at the border because they do see the humanitarian crisis of these flood of migrants as also spawning a security crisis because it's tying up their resources from actively fighting the drug smuggling and human trafficking that is continuing along the southern border.

GROSS: So are you saying that the drug smugglers are actually working in conjunction with the people who smuggle people across the border or that the drug smugglers are intentionally recruiting people and sending them across the border? Like, what is their role in getting people to cross as decoys?

GRAFF: Yeah, so the drug cartels control both the narcotics smuggling and the human trafficking along the southern border on the Mexican side, and so if you are someone even seeking safe passage through that region, more often than not, you end up in the hands of a cartel smuggling operation just to pass through the Mexican district to get to the border in the first place.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Garrett Graff, who's been writing about the Border Patrol since 2014, including a new piece in Politico Magazine, where he used to be editor. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff, a journalist and author who's covered federal law enforcement for more than a decade and has been writing about the Border Patrol. He has a new piece about the Border Patrol in Politico Magazine.

So on a related note, President Trump promised to hire 5,000 new agents, and apparently he hasn't delivered on that.

GRAFF: Not only has he not delivered on the 5,000 new agents; the Border Patrol is so beleaguered that it has actually lost 2,000 agents from its peak under the Obama administration and is continuing to lose a couple dozen agents every pay period right now. And this is a huge frustration to agents as they find, you know, their already overworked workforce even more overworked.

And it's also - you know, Trump has failed to deliver on what they thought were even the most basic promises that he made them during the campaign when they became the first union to back him in the presidential campaign, where the Border Patrol remains uniquely underpaid as a federal law enforcement agency and has, because of a quirk in the federal pay regulations, uniquely poor overtime pay for Border Patrol agents. And that - the overtime pay reform was actually the highest priority of the Border Patrol union when they were backing Trump. And Trump has failed to fix that at all.

GROSS: In your estimation, how much of the humanitarian crisis at the southern border is a result of the large numbers of people crossing over from Mexico, and how much of it is a function of bad management and policies that you describe as cruel?

GRAFF: I think it's impossible to separate the two. The sheer numbers would be a crisis even in a well-run agency. But the unique cruelty of the Trump administration's policies has exacerbated it. The general dysfunction in the Trump administration in terms of leadership - CBP is now on its third acting commissioner just in the three years of the Trump administration, and the acting DHS secretary is actually the person who's supposed to be serving as the Senate-confirmed CBP commissioner. But there's no one else, you know, leading DHS after the purge of Kirstjen Nielsen and her deputy earlier this spring.

So this is an agency that is effectively rudderless at a time when it is facing what is probably the greatest crisis of its 16-year existence. You know, it's worth noting, really, that across DHS, there is not a single permanent, Senate-confirmed leader in any of the jobs leading our immigration or border protection.

GROSS: Is that intentional? It seems sometimes that Trump likes to have people who aren't permanent and don't need to be confirmed by the Senate.

GRAFF: Yeah. So Donald Trump has made clear that he likes these temporary officials because they provide what he says is, quote, "flexibility" for him. What's also true in this case is that within DHS, he is appointing temporary acting officials who are so controversial and so disliked that they would be unlikely to actually be able to win Senate confirmation themselves. But that limits their authority. It limits their ability to lead their organizations. And it just exacerbates this revolving door of leaders across DHS.

GROSS: You've described the southern border in the Rio Grande Valley area as having a thriving border protection industry. Would you describe the industry?

GRAFF: For all that we hear about the need to increase border spending, the need to build this big, expensive wall the length of the border, most people don't realize actually just how large of an industry border protection already is. We spend more already on border and immigration protection than the combined budget of the FBI, the ATF, the U.S. Marshals, the Secret Service and the entire budget of the NYPD. So this is a massive spending program already.

And when you go down into these towns and cities along the border, what you actually see is that border security is, in some ways, one of the biggest employers already and that we have deployed this, you know, relatively new army of Border Patrol agents along the southern border and invested in an incredible amount of militarization and high-tech technology that includes unarmed predator drones and even what are known as aerostats - effectively, blimps that patrol the southern border that have been brought back after service in Afghanistan.

GROSS: Garrett Graff, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRAFF: Always a pleasure.

GROSS: Garrett Graff's new article in Politico Magazine is titled "The Border Patrol Hits A Breaking Point." His next book, "An Oral History Of 9/11," will be published in September.

After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new remake of "The Lion King," which has computer-generated animals. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAMBOOS' "THE BAMBOOS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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