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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to make a short trip to China this weekend.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China and the U.S. have been trying to cool off tensions. They've been talking a little bit. But their strategic competition continues, and the latest source of tension is high over the United States. The Pentagon asserts that a Chinese surveillance balloon has been flying high over Montana. Watching episodes of "Yellowstone" maybe? We just don't know.

FADEL: To talk about how this might affect Blinken's visit, we're joined by NPR China correspondent Emily Feng. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: OK. Emily, why don't we just start by talking about what a surveillance balloon even is, what it looks like? And what do we know about the one that was supposedly spotted over Montana?

FENG: So in this case, this was a large white balloon - so big, in fact, that it was spotted by people on the ground in Montana. And it's used to collect intel from the air. A senior defense official in the U.S. said they are absolutely certain it was China that set it afloat, though they did not explain how they knew that, and that the U.S. has been tracking this balloon from the moment it entered U.S. airspace a few days ago. The spokesperson said there was a discussion about whether to shoot it down, but they decided to let it be because it's flying at such high altitude that the Pentagon said it poses no physical or military risk, though it was flying over U.S. missile sites. Now, countries spy on each other all the time from the air, using satellites and drones. And while a balloon does seem a little unusual, the defense official said it's actually happened a couple of times over the past few years.

This is what a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson had to say about the balloon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: So the spokesperson in China said, "China is figuring out the relevant situation, and we hope to deal with this calmly with the U.S." But, diplomatically, this is really awkward. It puts the two countries again at odds with one another, even before the secretary of state has gone to China, and has also given China hawks in the U.S. more material to seize on. The U.S. and China have been trying to stabilize their relationship diplomatically, but this incident and ongoing bipartisan efforts to increase sanctions on China could get in the way of that.

FADEL: So this is very public. Despite the spotting of this spy balloon, do you think that this visit could lead to any type of breakthrough with the rocky relationship?

FENG: So, first of all, what's interesting is Blinken's trip to China has not been officially confirmed by either side. Neither country has commented publicly on the trip, though we do expect that the secretary of state should be leaving for China on Sunday. The trip looks like it's still on despite this kerfuffle over the balloon. But expectations are really low, and they're probably even lower now given this balloon drama. U.S. officials and former diplomats I've been speaking to say the trip might result in some kind of joint statement, perhaps on combating climate change or perhaps even something against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. But there are no expected deliverables, and there shouldn't really be any breakthroughs on the main issues at the heart of the U.S.-China relationship.

FADEL: OK, then what's the point of the visit at all?

FENG: That's a really good question. Well, officials emphasize talking is better than just not talking at all. And there are some meaty issues at the heart of the relationship over human rights, combating climate change, technological competition. So that involves getting China on board, even if the two countries don't see eye to eye. And the fact that Blinken's even going to China is already progress.

FADEL: NPR's Emily Feng. Thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: An inmate at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been released to Belize.

INSKEEP: The former prisoner is 42 years old. He's a native of Pakistan. And his name is Majid Khan. He sued the Biden administration for unlawful imprisonment last year.

FADEL: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has been covering Khan's release. Sacha, good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So tell us about Majid Khan. Who is he?

PFEIFFER: He was an unusual Guantanamo prisoner in several ways. He's a Pakistani citizen, but he grew up in Maryland, near Baltimore. And more than a decade ago, he pleaded guilty in Guantanamo's military court to being an al-Qaida courier. And there was some drama during his sentencing because a military jury urged that he get leniency. This was after jurors heard how he had been tortured at a secret CIA prison after being captured. Now, Khan completed his sentence almost a year ago, and he was free to leave Guantanamo, but the United States kept holding him.

FADEL: OK, so Khan pleads guilty after being tortured, completes his sentence. Why was he still being held?

PFEIFFER: Well, there were no legal grounds. It's just that the U.S. could not find another country to take him. He could not be safely transferred to Pakistan because he had cooperated with U.S. authorities. And then last summer, U.S. officials said they'd been in touch with 11 countries but apparently could not find any takers. And, Leila, this is a big issue at Guantanamo.

FADEL: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: It's a common problem because the majority of Gitmo prisoners have been approved for release but are still being held. Some of them have been in that limbo state for more than a decade.

FADEL: Wow.

PFEIFFER: And that's even though they've never been charged with a crime. But these transfer deals are delicate. They're complicated negotiations. So a lot of the men are cleared to go, but they remain behind bars.

FADEL: So Belize agrees to take Khan. Does he have any connection to Belize?

PFEIFFER: No, he doesn't. And the U.S. has not explained why Belize agreed to take him. We're talking, of course, about the small English-speaking country in Central America. It has a population of only about 400,000 people. But countries that accept former Guantanamo prisoners have to agree to treat them humanely and provide security assurances, and Belize has emphasized that Khan is there as a free man on humanitarian grounds, just as if he were a migrant or a refugee looking for a second chance. I spoke with one of Khan's lawyers, and she's elated he's been released, but she did have harsh words for the U.S. government's operation at Guantanamo. Her name is Katya Jestin, and here's part of what she told me.

KATYA JESTIN: In what system do you finish your sentence, when you were sentenced by a court of law, and remain in jail? Where does that happen? Certainly not in a democracy that is governed by a system of laws.

FADEL: What is the U.S. government saying about Khan's release?

PFEIFFER: Let me read to you from the Defense Department's announcement about his transfer. It says in part, quote, "the United States appreciates the willingness of the government of Belize and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and, ultimately, closing the Guantanamo Bay facility." That's the end of the quote.

FADEL: So how many prisoners are still at Guantanamo, and how many are now and still in Khan's position, where they were cleared for release?

PFEIFFER: So 34 men remain. Twenty of them fall in the category we talked about of never having been charged with anything and been approved for release, yet sitting in prison while the U.S. tries to find countries to take them. Now, their cases are arguably more egregious than Khan's because at least he was charged with a crime and went through a court process. These others are considered forever prisoners, meaning held indefinitely without charge or trial.

FADEL: Forever prisoners. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Thank you.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Climate change and rapid population growth are drying up the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

INSKEEP: As the name implies, this lake is huge but getting smaller. And scientists at Utah universities warn it will disappear in five years if no action is taken. Here's Utah Governor Spencer Cox talking about that study in his recent State of the State address.

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SPENCER COX: Let me be absolutely clear - we are not going to let that happen.

FADEL: So what are the consequences of the Great Salt Lake completely drying up? To understand that, let's bring in NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler for more. Hi, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So how close are we from an environmental breaking point here, and what can be done so we don't get there?

SIEGLER: Well, we are very close, so I'm told, if we're not there already. For some context, the Great Salt Lake is anywhere from about eight to nine feet below what it should be. Utah's having a snowy winter right now. That's helped a little bit. But we would need several of these in a row. You know, this crisis is the result of the 20-plus-year megadrought here in the West and also water diversions from rivers upstream from the lake for farming, mostly going to animal feed crops, as well as cities. You know, Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the West. And scientists say we're at this breaking point.

I went out on the lake with one of them on a recent cold, gray morning. Carly Biedul of the Great Salt Lake Institute - we're walking across the dried-up shore of the lake bed. It's this otherworldly experience. And she's trying to find brine fly larva, Leila, to take back to her lab. Now, it's getting harder and harder to find this. They're at the bottom of the food chain. As the lake dries up, it's getting too salty to sustain life. And, you know, if they go away, then the brine shrimp go away, and then the thousands of migrating birds that rely on the brine shrimp may go away. So it's disastrous.

CARLY BIEDUL: The threshold is - we're kind of at the threshold. So if things get any saltier, we're super, super worried.

FADEL: OK. Well, this doesn't sound good.

SIEGLER: No.

FADEL: Kirk, Salt Lake City sits in the valley where, in the wintertime, cold air and pollution from cars and industry gets trapped. It already has some of the dirtiest air in the nation. So if the Great Salt Lake dries up, does that also then make this worse?

SIEGLER: Yeah, this is probably the biggest, most pressing concern with the lake drying up. The dust from the dried lakebed would be toxic. You've got high concentrations of mercury and arsenic out there, so if dust storms were to blow, they'd probably go east, right to Salt Lake City, particularly immediately into neighborhoods that are close to the lake, that are also close to Salt Lake City International Airport, a lot of busy freeways and an oil refinery. So neighborhood activists, as you can imagine, are very concerned about this. And, Leila, you were, along with me, based in California...

FADEL: Yeah.

SIEGLER: ...Pretty recently, right? Do you remember Owens Lake?

FADEL: Mmm hmm.

SIEGLER: Well, the city of Los Angeles diverted water for years from the Owens River, and that dried up the saline lake, the Owens Lake. And now it's the largest single-source pollutant in the U.S. And the Great Salt Lake is seven times bigger than Owens Lake. So there's a looming disaster out there and a lot of pressure on Utah lawmakers to come up with solutions in the coming months.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. Toxic dust, the possibility that life can't be sustained - what's being done?

SIEGLER: Well, they want to spend approximately half-a-billion dollars to do things like create a central state agency to manage the lake. They want to pay farmers to leave water in those creeks and rivers so those rivers - more water would flow into the lake. They also want to expand a lawn removal program in cities. And scientists I've talked to are encouraged by this but say they may not go far enough. So big changes have to be made.

FADEL: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.