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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We have new information about the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this week.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Navy and FBI are working to recover what remains of the balloon. Meanwhile, members of Congress want to know what data it collected while hovering over the U.S.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now to discuss this. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what's the latest that the Biden administration is saying about this balloon?

FADEL: Well, the administration has been pushing out more and more information in the past several days on this. The U.S. said yesterday, for example, that these sorts of Chinese spy balloons have flown over 40 countries on five continents. An American U-2 spy plane did a flyby of the most recent balloon here, and images that it picked up showed that this balloon could collect signals intelligence. So in other words, it could spy on American communications. And the U.S. is saying quite plainly that the equipment on the balloon was not consistent with weather balloons. And that, of course, is pushing back on China's claim that this was just a weather balloon that had veered off course.

FADEL: So how are lawmakers responding to that?

LUCAS: Members of both parties want the administration to detail what kind of data the Chinese were able to collect. Lawmakers did receive a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, and the House unanimously approved a resolution condemning China's use of the balloon over the U.S. Here's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike McCaul.

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MICHAEL MCCAUL: It is publicly challenging U.S. interests, threatening Taiwan, supporting Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and now violating U.S. sovereignty.

LUCAS: So that gives you a good sense, a good taste of how members of Congress are viewing China's actions.

FADEL: Yeah. So the U.S. is also saying China has a fleet of these for surveillance purposes, right?

LUCAS: That's right. That's what the U.S. is saying, that China's developed a fleet of these for spying purposes and that it's often the Chinese military that's calling the shots on how they're used. State Department officials said that the U.S. has identified the company that makes these balloons. And the U.S. says it's a company that has ties to the Chinese military. And look, the U.S. has said at least four other such Chinese balloons have flown over parts of the U.S. in recent years. But the U.S. didn't detect those incursions in real time. They didn't detect them as they happened. They only did so later.

FADEL: What do we know about this effort off the coast of South Carolina to recover what's left of the balloon?

LUCAS: So bits and pieces of this balloon fell into the Atlantic Ocean about 6 miles off the South Carolina coast. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are obviously working to collect the fragments of this thing, but the FBI is playing a role as well. Two senior FBI officials familiar with the operation spoke to reporters yesterday. They said the U.S. has only collected materials that were on the ocean surface so far - so the balloon canopy, some wiring, what one official described as a very small amount of electronics. The first bits of evidence that were recovered were transported to FBI facilities at Quantico late Monday evening. And those are being cleaned and analyzed.

FADEL: OK, to be clear, the U.S. hasn't recovered most of the surveillance equipment that the balloon was carrying.

LUCAS: That's right. That's right. The FBI officials say that most of the debris is still underwater, still on the ocean floor. That includes the bulk of the electronic equipment, the high-tech surveillance devices and so on that are, of course, of so much interest to the U.S. here. One of the FBI officials said that this sort of recovery operation takes some time, as will the analysis of what they eventually find. And it takes time to get folks to the scene to identify debris that's underwater, to get that debris to the surface and back to land and to get it ultimately to Quantico for the FBI techs to take a look at.

FADEL: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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FADEL: In Ukraine, an important reservoir is apparently being drained by Russia. That's according to satellite imagery obtained by NPR.

MARTÍNEZ: At stake is drinking water for many thousands of people, as well as agricultural production and safety at Europe's largest nuclear plant.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been covering this story. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what's happening at this reservoir?

BRUMFIEL: So this reservoir is called the Kakhovka Reservoir.

FADEL: OK.

BRUMFIEL: It's about the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake. And it's really important to southern Ukraine. It supplies drinking water and fills irrigation canals all over the region. My colleagues and I have been looking over satellite data and images which clearly show that since November, the water level has been plummeting at this reservoir. It's now at its lowest level in 30 years.

FADEL: OK, so two questions - what's causing it to drain so quickly, and how do we know it's Russia?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So here's sort of the setup of the whole situation. The thing holding the water in the reservoir is a large hydroelectric dam. That's holding the water back. The dam also is on the front lines of the war. And on one side is Ukrainian territory, and on the other side is Russian territory. Satellite images very clearly show that sluice gates on the Russian side of the dam are open. They're letting the water out. I spoke to David Helms. He's a retired meteorologist and satellite expert with the U.S. government who's sort of become obsessed with this whole situation. And he told me that the way the dam is set up, there's really only one side that could be doing this.

DAVID HELMS: It's the Russians. The Ukrainians, if they wanted to - they can't get across. They can't just, like, swim across, climb up. They can't do that. They would be dead because the Russians would shoot them.

BRUMFIEL: And a statement from local officials in Ukraine indicates that they, too, think Russia is to blame for what's happening.

FADEL: And it sounds like if this huge reservoir empties out, the consequences are dire.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, one of the biggest dangers is that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant - that plant has, of course, been on the front lines throughout this conflict, and it needs cooling water for its nuclear cores. That water comes from this reservoir. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already put out a statement about falling water levels. Beyond that, this reservoir supplies drinking water to several cities in southern Ukraine, and it's used to irrigate around half a million acres of farmland. So this is a very arid part of the country, and it really depends on it.

FADEL: Why would the Russians be doing this?

BRUMFIEL: Well, we don't really know. David Helms thinks this may be another tool of attack against Ukraine and its economy.

HELMS: That's as good as knocking out the power grid.

BRUMFIEL: But I spoke to Brian Kuns. He's at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and he says that most of the irrigation channels run to the Russian-held side of the reservoir. So he doesn't really understand why they'd drain it.

BRIAN KUNS: It just seems strange that they'd be doing a scorched earth on territory that they claim publicly that they want to keep.

BRUMFIEL: Another possibility is that the Russians are doing this for military reasons, to flood the Dnieper River below the reservoir and prevent Ukrainian troops from advancing.

FADEL: So can Ukraine do anything?

BRUMFIEL: You know, local Ukrainian officials said on Telegram they're looking to try and slow the loss by filling the reservoir with water from other reservoirs. But as long as those sluice gates are open, it's going to be really tough.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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FADEL: A top executive with Southwest Airlines endured a grilling on Capitol Hill yesterday.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the hearing focused on the operational meltdown in December that screwed up holiday plans for hundreds of thousands of people. The Senate Commerce Committee asked pointed questions about Southwest's disastrous performance, and lawmakers are considering strengthening consumer protections for air travelers.

FADEL: NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper is covering this story. Good morning, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So how did senators talk about the meltdown in yesterday's hearing?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there was a lot of indignation and frustration. It was on full display even among longtime fans and customers of Southwest Airlines, like Republican Ted Cruz of Southwest's home state of Texas.

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TED CRUZ: It was an epic screw-up.

SCHAPER: Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen called it an unmitigated disaster. Illinois's Tammy Duckworth ripped into Southwest and other airlines for, as she puts it, predatory practices that treat customers like suckers. And on and on it went, with senators from both parties asking pointed questions about how this fiasco happened and what's being done to make sure it doesn't happen again.

FADEL: Epic screw-up, unmitigated disasters, predatory practices - I mean, how did Southwest respond?

SCHAPER: Well, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson really responded the only way he could. He apologized, and then he admitted that the airline messed up.

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ANDREW WATTERSON: In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency from where and how we de-ice aircraft to the cold resiliency of our ground support equipment and infrastructure.

SCHAPER: Watterson added that the failure of antiquated crew scheduling systems and other technology, staffing and communications issues compounded problems. He says the airline is investing more than a billion dollars in technology and equipment upgrades to make sure this doesn't happen again. But this wasn't a one-time thing for Southwest. They've had a few other operational meltdowns in recent years. Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest Pilots Union, told the committee that pilots have been sounding the alarm, but those warnings were ignored.

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CASEY MURRAY: Our recent history and the data shows a pattern of increasingly disruptive operational failures, misprioritization of resources and, worst of all, a hollow leveraging of our culture to cover up poor management decisions.

FADEL: Wow. So what kind of consumer protections are lawmakers considering in the wake of all this?

SCHAPER: Well, consumer advocates would like compensation for significant flight delays, as is the case in Europe, mandatory reimbursement for meals, lodging and other expenses that are incurred because of delays and cancellations - even reciprocity between the airlines so if one airline cancels your flight, they would put you on another airline for free. You know, you've got to remember that several other airlines have had significant problems with delays and cancellations in the last couple of years as they've tried to recover from the pandemic. Paul Hudson brought that up. He's with the group Flyers Rights.

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PAUL HUDSON: Under the current system, airlines are actually incentivized to provide bad service. Good service costs money, and bad service saves money. And that money can be used for dividends, stock buybacks and executive compensation.

SCHAPER: But, you know, airline industry representatives say that such further regulations will only drive up fares. It would hurt competition and could reduce airline service in some parts of the country. And many Republicans who were on the panel tended to agree, saying that if customers have a problem with the airlines, they should just, you know, fly a different airline.

FADEL: NPR's David Schaper. Thank you so much, David.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Matt Martinez
Matt Martinez is the Senior Producer for NPR Programming. He leads a team of producers responsible for developing new show and podcast pilots, supporting live events, and supporting stations in their fundraising efforts.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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