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News Brief: Biden Trip, Keystone XL Pipeline, Tribal Jails Probe


Joe Biden is on his first overseas diplomatic trip as president.


He will sit down with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Cornwall, England, today. Biden spoke to U.S. service members at an Air Force base in the U.K. yesterday, and he said the military alliance between the two nations is critical.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You are the essential part of what makes up this special relationship between Great Britain and the United States.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is following this story. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Noel.

KING: How much of a relationship do Biden and Johnson really have?

KHALID: Well, I should say, you know, for decades, politicians have referred to the alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom as that so-called special relationship. And, Noel, that was a phrase actually coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to describe the depth of the ties between these two countries.

But there have been plenty of questions about just how special or, frankly, not special the personal relationship between Biden and Johnson might be. For one thing, Biden opposed Brexit, and Johnson championed it. And during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden actually mocked Johnson. At one point, he referred to him as, quote, "a physical and emotional clone" of former President Donald Trump.

You know, Johnson was seen as this embodiment of nationalist, populist politics who was quite chummy with former President Trump. You know, but that all being said, Johnson was quick to congratulate Biden after the November election, even at a time when his old pal Trump was bitterly fighting the results of that election. And Biden's advisers say the two leaders have had a series of warm and constructive conversations leading up to this trip.

KING: OK. So we'll see what happens when they meet in person. What are they going to talk about?

KHALID: Well, one thing that's important to Biden is the renewed tension in Northern Ireland after Brexit. The region is experiencing some of the worst strife that it's witnessed in years. And the backstory is that Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., and it has officially left the European Union. But the Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU. So they'll talk about this customs border that is supposed to be part of the arrangement. And Johnson wants a trade deal with the United States. Biden has warned that any trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom would be contingent on keeping the peace in Ireland. I will say, beyond trade, they both want to talk about climate change, and they'll also be working together at the G-7 to push for plans around a pandemic recovery.

KING: Yeah. To that end - so the Biden administration is going to announce that it will be donating vaccines to other countries in the rest of the world. Did they bring the vaccines with them?

KHALID: (Laughter) Well, not exactly. I'll say that it is, to some degree, right that we are going to get this big announcement. The president has been saying that he would try to muster up support from wealthy countries at the G-7 to help poorer countries get enough COVID-19 vaccines. And his thinking is that if there is any way to stop the virus from mutating and spreading, there needs to be just a lot more vaccinations happening at a global level. And Biden has said that the U.S. would share its leftover supply, and those have already begun going out. But today, he'll announce that the U.S. is buying 500 million additional doses. They'll be delivered by June of 2022, June of next year through COVAX, which works on vaccine distribution in poorer countries.

It is a lot, 500 million, but global health experts say that actually what's needed is 2 billion doses this year. So you know, a lot more vaccines are still needed. I will say that part of this is to counter Russia and China. They have both been sending vaccines around the world. And one of the big missions of Biden's trip here is to galvanize like-minded democracies to counter specifically the growing power of China.

KING: With some vaccine diplomacy.

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome.


KING: All right. For more than 10 years, environmental groups and Indigenous groups have fought in court to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

MCCAMMON: And now that plan has been cancelled. The company behind the Keystone XL pipeline says it will not move forward with an effort to build a pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

KING: NPR's Jeff Brady has been covering Keystone XL almost from the beginning. Good morning, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So big news in your part of the world. How are opponents of this pipeline reacting?

BRADY: They're celebrating big time. I talked with Jane Kleeb from the group Bold Nebraska, which started the campaign against the Keystone XL because landowners there didn't want the pipeline crossing their property. Also, there was concern it would threaten the Ogallala Aquifer. Kleeb says she spent a lot of time in a minivan going to rodeos, bars and church basements, trying to convince people to join her in stopping the pipeline.

JANE KLEEB: You know, in the early days, we were organizing, and every single person, you know, other than my family and the farmers whose lands was going to be taken, told us that we were never going to win, that there is no way that you can battle a big corporation and actually win.

BRADY: Now, of course, they have won, and Kleeb says she's experiencing all kinds of emotions. She's happy, of course, but also relieved that it's over and that the pipeline won't come through Nebraska.

KING: And for the oil industry, this is a big hit. How is that industry responding? Has it said much?

BRADY: Yeah, it's - this is a big loss. If that pipeline had been built, it would have transported oil from Alberta down to the Gulf Coast for decades. This is a big loss. The industry and the company building the project, TC Energy, said it would have generated thousands of jobs. Those are construction jobs mostly, which means they go away once it was built, probably just about 50 permanent direct jobs.

KING: Only 50 permanent jobs - and one of the sticking points here was that the oil this pipeline was going to move was not the kind of oil that we normally think of. Right?

BRADY: Right. It doesn't gush up out of the ground. It has to be mined. I visited one of those mines in Alberta, and it's just overwhelming. There are huge pits that looked like the Grand Canyon, and there's this heavy tar smell in the air. Some people actually call it tar sands oil. It has the consistency of Play-Doh, so it needs extra processing to turn it into crude oil. Usually that's heat, which means producing this oil emits more greenhouse gases. That's why environmental groups focus their efforts on stopping this pipeline. They want that oil sands or tar sands crude left in the ground. And scientists say doing that will be necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

KING: And Jeff, there are other fights over pipelines happening in this country. What does the end of Keystone XL mean for them?

BRADY: You know, pipeline opponents, they're invigorated and emboldened by the Keystone XL decision. You know, the Dakota Access, it's moving oil out of North Dakota now. That was a big protest. Its future is uncertain because of court challenges that still haven't been resolved. And right now in Minnesota, there are protests around Enbridge's Line 3 project that's under construction. A lot of those protesters are calling on President Biden to stop the Line 3 pipeline, just like he stopped the Keystone XL. And it looks like the legacy of the Keystone XL, it's going to be a lot more pipeline battles to come.

KING: NPR's Jeff Brady. Thanks so much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you.


KING: On Native American reservations, people are dying inside of tribal jails run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

MCCAMMON: Here's what's happening. A person is sent to jail for a minor infraction, like having an open container in public or petty theft, and days or even hours later, the person is dead. NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau have been investigating this as part of a member station partnership.

KING: NPR investigative correspondent Cheryl W. Thompson is part of a team that's been looking into what's going on in these jails. Good morning, Cheryl.

CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is happening? What did you find?

THOMPSON: Well, my partner on this project, Nate Hegyi, a reporter with the public media collaboration called the Mountain West News Bureau, he and I found a pattern of mismanagement and neglect in these tribal jails that led to the deaths of at least 19 men and women since 2016. These jails are overseen by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. We also found that corrections officers at several detention centers often violated policy by not checking on inmates regularly or ensuring that they received medical care. And we found that 1 in 5 guards have not completed required basic training, which includes CPR and first aid and suicide prevention.

KING: Tell me more about these jails. Where are they located, and what are they like?

THOMPSON: Sure. Well, these are often small jails in rural towns on reservations. There are about 77 of them around the country. Some of them are dilapidated. At one jail we visited on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, there was broken plumbing, and the drinking water was often brown, and there was a leaky roof. The jail supervisor told us then that her staff uses buckets to catch the water.

And Noel, the inmates who died there are everyday people - right? - a grocery store butcher, a day laborer, transients. And we've seen the same pattern over and over. People who were intoxicated died preventable deaths.

KING: Nineteen people since 2016 - did you talk to some of their families? What did you learn about these folks?

THOMPSON: Yeah, we did. Well, one of the victims was Carlos Yazzie. And Yazzie showed up at a jail on the Navajo Nation in 2017. He needed immediate medical attention. His blood alcohol content was nearly six times the legal limit. But instead of taking him to a hospital, guards put him in this cramped isolation cell. And federal policy requires guards to check on inmates every 30 minutes, but a medical examiner's report we obtained found that guards left Yazzie unmonitored for six hours. And an autopsy concluded that he died from acute alcohol poisoning. That's a condition easily treatable by medical professionals. Noel, his brother Chris used to work at the jail, and he believes Yazzie could have been saved if guards followed policy.

CHRIS YAZZIE: Corrections officers are basically - you know, are holding these lives in their hands with their decisions, you know.

KING: This sounds egregious. How on earth does this keep happening?

THOMPSON: Well, that's a great question for the BIA. What we do know is that people die for the same reasons - no doctors and nurses on site, poor training, jail staff breaking rules. And this has been happening, Noel, for almost two decades. In 2004, the inspector general for the Interior Department called the BIA jails a national disgrace. And after months of us asking questions about the deaths, training and staffing at the jails, an official told us they plan to bring in an outside agency to examine the problems plaguing them. We'll see if that makes a difference.

KING: Cheryl W. Thompson, thank you for your reporting.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.