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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Military analysts sometimes use this term, unsinkable aircraft carrier.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That's the term for an island in the Pacific where you can base planes or troops. The United States just obtained additional rights to an unsinkable aircraft carrier off the coast of China. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is in Manila and said the U.S. gained access to four more military bases in the Philippines.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: America's commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad. Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.

FADEL: Both countries are worried about China's growing influence.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Ashley Westerman is covering this story from Manila. Hey there, Ashley.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly did the U.S. and the Philippines agree to?

WESTERMAN: So the deal today adds to the U.S. military's options if something were to happen in the region. And with these four bases, the U.S. now has access to nine bases here in the Philippines. And it's being done under what's called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA. And that was signed back in 2014, but it was stalled for years by former President Rodrigo Duterte, who chose to cozy up to Beijing rather than Washington. Now, maritime affairs analyst Jay Batongbacal says this new agreement does not necessarily mean more U.S. boots on the ground.

JAY BATONGBACAL: EDCA provides mainly for the United States to be able to build infrastructure on Philippine military bases and also for pre-positioning of supplies and equipment.

WESTERMAN: And Batongbacal says over the years, it's become clear to many that a new arrangement was needed as China began asserting itself, becoming a threat to both the U.S. and the Philippines.

INSKEEP: Well, I know the Philippines have had tensions with China, but did either country say this is really aimed at China?

WESTERMAN: Well, they both took great pains to not say that. But analysts say this expanded footprint could help deter China from, one, taking action against self-governed Taiwan and, two, better help contain China in the South China Sea. And the South China Sea is a long-running issue between China and its neighbors. Southeast Asian countries say China has been making excessive claims to the South China Sea, basically claiming all of it. And the Chinese military have also been constructing bases in some of these contested waters for years. And when it comes to Taiwan, China has also become increasingly aggressive, especially over the last year, with military exercises. And if you remember, when former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, China doubled down on exercises in the Taiwan Strait. And so all of these actions are making China's neighbors very nervous. And, you know, China has actually responded to the announcement today, by the way. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a press conference accused the U.S. of exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability.

INSKEEP: What do Filipinos think about all this?

WESTERMAN: So many Filipinos are wary about allowing more U.S. military personnel here. Remember, the Philippines used to be a colony of the U.S. And even though the last U.S. bases were gone by 1992, U.S. troops continue to rotate through here for military exercises and such. And there have been ongoing issues with U.S. military servicemen and abuses of local women and the LGBTQ community. The most notable case of that is Jennifer Laude, a trans woman killed by a U.S. Marine in 2014. Now, that Marine was convicted of murder here in the Philippines, but he was pardoned by former President Duterte and allowed to return to the U.S. And so many Filipinos believe that he was pardoned after the government was pressured by the U.S. military. So between this and the U.S.'s colonial history, a lot of Filipinos are nervous about a bigger U.S. footprint here. But they're also nervous about Chinese expansion as well.

INSKEEP: That's our colleague, Ashley Westerman, reporting from Manila. Ashley, always a pleasure talking with you.

WESTERMAN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: In this country, the FBI has searched President Biden's beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Del. It's all part of an ongoing special counsel investigation into Biden's handling of classified material.

FADEL: Now, Biden's personal attorneys say no documents with classified markings were found, but the FBI did take some materials and handwritten notes with them.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is on this story. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did the president agree to this search in advance?

KEITH: Yes. The president's team said the search was conducted in coordination and cooperation with the Justice Department. Here's Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House Counsel's Office.

IAN SAMS: We're cooperating fully with the Justice Department and ensuring that they have access to the house - the Rehoboth house today, the Wilmington house previously - to be able to do a thorough search. And it's because the president is moving quickly to get them access to the information that they need so that they can move forward with a thorough review that's thorough and it's done efficiently.

KEITH: The president and his team clearly want this over with as quickly as possible.

INSKEEP: They naturally would want that, but this story just goes on and on. How does this search add to what we had learned through the search last month of the president's home in Wilmington?

KEITH: Right. So the Wilmington search lasted more than 12 hours, and the FBI left with six items that the president's lawyer said consisted of documents with classified markings and surrounding materials. This one was shorter. It lasted 3 1/2 hours, and there were no documents with markings. But in both cases, the FBI took other materials and handwritten notes. The president's attorney, Bob Bauer, said he believes that these date back to Biden's time as vice president, and they are being taken for further review.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

KEITH: You wouldn't expect handwritten notes to have classified markings, but that doesn't mean they aren't of interest to the special counsel investigation. I reached out to Norm Eisen, who was an ethics lawyer in the Obama administration.

NORM EISEN: They will be looking at documents and at handwritten notes, even if they don't bear classification markings for any classified information that may be contained therein. That can be a very time-consuming process because you literally go sentence by sentence and even phrase by phrase to assess.

KEITH: And time-consuming is not the phrase that Biden and his team have been angling for.

INSKEEP: OK, well, what happens if they look through these notes and do find something that appears to be classified information?

KEITH: Eisen says that there have been plenty of prosecutions for mishandling classified documents, but in those cases, there was intent. And he says he has seen no indication that Biden even knew he had these files in his home, much less that he purposely hid classified materials in his house. And that is one of the differences with the ongoing special counsel investigation into former President Trump's handling of classified documents. He and his legal team actively resisted returning documents to the National Archives and may have misled the government about what he had in his possession.

INSKEEP: OK, so there are questions - for example, what is on these handwritten notes? But what other questions are still out there for the special counsel?

KEITH: Well, or for the public?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KEITH: We don't know the number of documents involved. We don't know the contents of these documents or whether other sites could be searched. Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the FBI had searched an office that Biden had used previously back in November. That's something that the president's team keeps sidestepping altogether. There's a rule of thumb in politics, in crisis, that you should get out all the information you can as quickly as you can and get the bad headlines out of the way and move on. In this case, that's just not been happening. It's been coming out slowly.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith with an unclassified report on the classified information. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: Republicans are now in charge of the House of Representatives, and they wasted no time in turning their attention to the southern border.

FADEL: Yeah, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing yesterday. Republicans on the committee sought to portray President Biden's border policies as a threat to communities all over the country, while Democrats accused the GOP of fearmongering and spreading misinformation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose was listening. Joel, good morning.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What stood out to you?

ROSE: Well, the hearing was billed as the Biden border crisis part one. So likely, this is the first of many.

INSKEEP: Part two, part three.

ROSE: You got it. The chairman of the committee, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, is using his new platform to focus on the border and to make the case that the Biden administration's policies are to blame for the record number of migrant apprehensions of the past few years.

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JIM JORDAN: These numbers make clear that the Biden administration does not have operational control of the border. Month after month after month, we have set records for migrants coming into the country. And frankly, I think it's intentional.

ROSE: The Biden administration insists the border is secure, and immigration authorities have arrested and expelled millions of migrants over the past few years. And Biden has kept in place some of the key border policies of former President Trump, even recently expanding the use of pandemic restrictions known as Title 42, much to the frustration of many Democrats.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and I suppose we should note the number that Jordan is referring to is a record number of migrant apprehensions, which means people are being stopped on their way into the not-open border. So given the strangeness of some of these allegations, is there anything different about the Republican case now that they have the majority?

ROSE: As the majority, they have more control of the agenda. And yesterday, Republicans tried to link the situation at the border with the rising number of deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. We should note that fentanyl overdose deaths have been rising for years, well before President Biden took office. And the committee yesterday called a witness named Brandon Dunn, whose 15-year-old son died of fentanyl poisoning last year. Dunn and his wife co-founded a nonprofit group to spread awareness about fentanyl poisoning. And here's some of what he said.

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BRANDON DUNN: Any amount smuggled in in a backpack or a fanny pack or even in somebody's pocket can be enough to kill thousands of people.

ROSE: Committee members of both parties offered their condolences to Mr. Dunn, but they differed sharply in their reactions to his testimony.

INSKEEP: So there's this long-running fentanyl problem that was addressed by Republicans. How did Democrats respond?

ROSE: Democrats accused Republicans of using this fentanyl crisis to fearmonger against migrants, many of whom are vulnerable people and families seeking protection in the U.S. Here's Mary Gay Scanlon, Democratic representative from Pennsylvania.

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MARY GAY SCANLON: By falsely suggesting that migrant families seeking asylum are the source of the fentanyl epidemic, we can't even start to craft policy measures that could actually address either of these issues.

ROSE: Democrats note that, yes, there is a fentanyl crisis in the U.S., and yes, a huge amount of the drug is smuggled into the country from Mexico. But as Democrats also pointed out, the vast majority of fentanyl seizures happen at official ports of entry. There is a much smaller fraction of fentanyl that's seized by Border Patrol agents between the ports, and virtually none is seized from migrants who are turning themselves in to seek asylum.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose, thanks so much.

ROSE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Isnkeep
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