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News Brief: Biden-Putin Summit, Texas Border Wall, The War On Drugs

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden is back at the White House this morning after his high-profile summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The two presidents agreed to keep talking about arms control. Putin said he thinks the two can find common ground there and in some other areas. Biden said the meeting was not that much togetherness, but he was pleased.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was important to meet in person so there can be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do.

FADEL: Joining me now to discuss is White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what did President Biden get out of this summit?

KEITH: As he said, he did what he came to do, which is that he came to say what he wanted to say. That meant raising human rights concerns and pressing Putin on his treatment of political opposition. And it meant raising recent hacks and ransomware attacks attributed to cybercriminals in Russia that have affected a major pipeline, a major meat supplier and other entities in the U.S.

FADEL: So when you say Biden raised these cyberattacks, what was said, and what was agreed on?

KEITH: The U.S. is looking to see whether Russia will take action against those criminals. And it's definitely a wait-and-see. President Biden said he gave President Putin a list of 16 areas of critical infrastructure. Let's be clear - these are not state secrets. They are on a U.S. government website. But he said that these 16 areas should be off-limits to cyberattacks, including energy and water. And as a way of hinting at a possible U.S. response if these things aren't off-limits, he made the case that it was in both of their self-interests to agree to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BIDEN: For example, when I talked about the pipeline that cyber hit for 5 million - that ransomware hit in the United States, I looked at him. I said, how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? Said it would matter.

KEITH: It was sort of a, that's a nice pipeline you have there; would be a shame if something happened to it. He said that they agreed to begin some diplomatic conversations around cybersecurity, but he also had a fairly heavy dose of skepticism. And he said he'd have to wait to see three to six months from now whether anything changed.

FADEL: So how about Putin? What was his main message?

KEITH: Putin called the conversations constructive and said there was no hostility. He talked about continuing talks in certain areas, including arms control and cybersecurity. But he also denied any Russian culpability for cyberattacks or election meddling. And when asked about his mistreatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he brought up the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, seemingly sympathizing with the rioters and arguing they were just people expressing a political opposition.

FADEL: Wow. So given the depth and breadth of tensions with Moscow - and Tam, you just gave a long list of all the things Putin's denying - did Biden walk out of this meeting with any more trust in Putin?

KEITH: You know, he was asked several variations on this question, especially since Biden's press conference came right after Putin's, where the Russian leader made all of these denials. And Biden said it is not a matter of trusting Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BIDEN: This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.

KEITH: Biden even lashed out at a reporter who asked why he was confident Putin would change his behavior. Biden said he never claimed confidence, though he did later apologize to the reporter.

FADEL: So anything else you're watching with this relationship going forward?

KEITH: Yeah, I'll be watching to see if there's any progress on releasing two U.S. citizens who've been detained in Russia, former U.S. Marines Paul Whalen and Trevor Reed. Biden said he raised the issue, but there was no outcome from that.

FADEL: NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Texas Governor Greg Abbott wants the state to build its own border wall.

INSKEEP: The Republican governor says Texas has to protect itself from immigrants coming across the southern border. You will recall that building a wall was a key priority of former President Trump. But work on that wall stopped when President Biden took office.

FADEL: We've got NPR's John Burnett on the line. He's covered the border wall for years. Hello, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So John, is this even legal? Can Texas just put up its own barrier along the Rio Grande?

BURNETT: Well (laughter), we'll see. You know, border security is a federal responsibility. It's hard to imagine how the Homeland Security Department under President Biden will hand that off to Texas. We heard some sword-rattling language yesterday about how Texans have to defend themselves from what the lieutenant governor called an invasion from the south. Abbott said the state would initially transfer $250 million from the state budget into a disaster account. And he kicked off a crowdfunding webpage where people can kick in and help build the Lone Star Border Wall. He didn't have any specifics. We don't know how much it will cost, how many miles, where it will go or what the design will be. The governor basically said he's going to hire a bunch of experts, and they'll tell us all that later.

FADEL: Some of this language sounds familiar. So how will they get their hands on the land?

BURNETT: Right. Well, that's going to be tricky. Abbott says they can put up hundreds of miles of wall on existing state land along the border and on property he expects people to donate to the state. And he says people will install their own fences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: As we speak, there are state agencies talking to landowners on the border about putting up fencing on their private land to be able to prevent the dramatic influx that these landowners have been suffering from over the past few months.

BURNETT: If experience is a guide, good luck with that. Trump built 455 miles of barrier, and very little of it was in Texas because most of the borderland down here is in private hands. I've been interviewing landowners for the last five years, and most people don't want a 30-foot-tall steel and concrete structure on land that's been in the family since Texas was part of Spain. Now, if the state wants to condemn their property to build the wall, they can try. But even the Trump administration, with the vast power of the federal government, had a devil of a time establishing clear title and getting those eminent domain cases through federal court.

FADEL: So meanwhile, the Biden administration wants to halt construction of Trump's wall altogether. Right?

BURNETT: Right. Biden terminated the national border emergency, cancelled $2 billion and diverted Pentagon funds and stopped construction. Last week, he went even further. He called on Congress to cancel the nearly $1.5 billion it set aside for the wall this year and redirect it to mitigate environmental damage caused by Trump's wall construction. Here's Myles Traphagen with the Wildlands Network in Tucson. He says they're in talks with Biden's people about how to repair damage to mountainsides that were dynamited to put in the wall.

MYLES TRAPHAGEN: And so we are very concerned about these locations that are going to be prone to severe erosion and further damage down the line after our monsoon rains arrive this summer.

BURNETT: If folks thought the border wall would drop out of the headlines when Trump left office, here we go again.

FADEL: Yeah. NPR's John Burnett, thank you for your reporting.

BURNETT: You bet, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Today marks 50 years in America's longest war, the war on drugs.

INSKEEP: President Richard M. Nixon ushered in new, far more punitive drug policies during a speech from the White House on this day in 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.

INSKEEP: An offensive that outlasted Nixon's presidency and several other presidencies - it's now gone 50 years and led to millions of people imprisoned, disproportionately people of color. Entire families and communities were affected by mass incarceration, and many people have been asking whether it's time to try some other approach.

FADEL: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us. Thanks for joining us, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning.

So 50 years, that's a long time. Is there any evidence that punitive measures that came with America declaring a, quote, "war on drugs" worked?

MANN: You know, the remarkable thing, Leila, is I've spoken to so many experts about this. And the short answer is no. You know, for a long time - a really long time - Democrats and Republicans embraced this idea that drug addiction could be fought this way on a kind of military footing. When he was a U.S. senator, Joe Biden was one of the biggest proponents of this. The U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars, hired whole new armies of police and federal agents. And of course, as Steve mentioned, we sent millions of mostly Black and brown Americans to prison on drug charges. But federal officials now acknowledge the streets are flooded with more dangerous drugs than ever before. And we had a record number of overdose deaths last year, more than 90,000 lives lost.

FADEL: You know, you mentioned the mass incarceration of Black and brown Americans. So ultimately, these communities bore the brunt of the prison sentences, the enforcement. Right?

MANN: Data collected during the drug war has always shown a devastating level of racial bias in the way these laws were enforced. And there's also a sense among Black leaders that the drug war changed policing in their communities in really troubling ways. I spoke to Kassandra Frederique about this. She's with the Drug Policy Alliance. She says police started treating many Black communities like war zones, you know, like occupied territory.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: Part of the reason we also need to end the drug war, not just for our loved ones that are struggling with addiction, but we need to remove the excuse that that is why law enforcement gets to invade our space - or kill us.

MANN: And Frederique points out that some of the most tragic deaths that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests involve police responding to cases that involve drugs in some way.

FADEL: So is this country at some kind of inflection point, a rethinking of this approach?

MANN: You know, no one I talked to says the drug war is over completely. But some of the changes we have seen, Leila, already are dramatic. You know, severe laws are being scaled back. That's meant big reductions in prison populations. There's been this unprecedented move toward drug legalization, especially for marijuana. So yeah, we are seeing big changes.

FADEL: So is this recognition, then, that this was the wrong approach, this punitive approach?

MANN: Yeah. And I think there is a big pivot now toward health care, toward people getting more treatment. That's a very hopeful thing in this moment. But people are telling me still - after half a century dismantling this vast system, the war on drugs, it's begun - that the process could take years or decades.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann, thank you.

MANN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.