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News Brief: Afghan Refugees, House Budget Stalemate, Origins Of COVID-19


We have a report from a way station for people evacuated from Afghanistan.


Those who've made the journey there include a man known as Reggie, a former U.S. interpreter. He crossed the chaos of Kabul to the airport with his wife and five children.

REGGIE: To be honest, sir, it was almost like they were feeling they are going to die any moment. Looking to my kids, I couldn't look at their eyes because they were looking almost they have no cares in no way. And they were completely lost. Even they were not eating food. And my wife was also crying. And because there - she was looking around. People were running like crazy - male, female, kids.

INSKEEP: When they made it into the Kabul airport, Reggie was so relieved, he hugged an American soldier. And within hours, his family was safely at a U.S. military base in Qatar. Like other evacuees, they spent a few days there before being moved on, making room for others behind them.

FADEL: Jamal Elshayyal, a senior correspondent for Al-Jazeera, went to that military base, the Al Udeid Air Base. He joins us now. Hi, Jamal.

JAMAL ELSHAYYAL: Hi, Leila. How are you?

FADEL: Doing well. Walk us through what you saw at that base.

ELSHAYYAL: So it's - it can only be described as some kind of mammoth operation of trying to evacuate as many people as possible in such a short time with such, quite frankly, little preparation in the sense that, obviously, all the events that took place in Afghanistan took most people by surprise in terms of the speed of how they unfolded. And therefore, there wasn't any preparation in terms of the U.S. airbase here in Qatar, Al Udeid, to be able to house so many civilians coming in. There wasn't any preparation in terms of this airlift operation or air bridge, as they called it, from Doha to Kabul.

But between the logistical support that's been provided by the Qataris and the diplomatic kind of efforts that they've pushed, as well as the fact that the U.S. air base here is one of the largest in the world, they have managed to come up with some sort of a system that's seen thousands literally flown in. Imagine some sort of shuttle service coming through. But what that means in terms of conditions is that at least in the first few days, you were having hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, civilians crammed in these airport hangars. Obviously, Qatar is infamous for its summer heats, temperatures reaching, you know, 50 degrees Celsius. And so super hot, not really many toilets, not much food. So the first - at least the first few batches of those arrivals were finding it very difficult in those conditions. Since then, the US military has been able to order more services and things like portable toilets and so forth.

However, when I was there just around 30 hours ago, I was speaking to some personnel. They were telling me that whilst they managed to kind of find other locations for them, there were still finding challenges in terms of providing warm food, in terms of sanitary things. So there's been also an added element of support here, where the community of both local Qataris, as well as expats living in Doha, have been mobilizing online, on Facebook pages, on Instagram and so forth to collect donations and stuff like that.

FADEL: Does the U.S. have enough staff there to process these people?

ELSHAYYAL: No. And that's according to the U.S. personnel that I spoke to, including people who just touched down from Kabul. They're waiting for thousands of TSA or hundreds of TSA staff. They're saying that are meant to be coming, as well as other support staff. But the processing procedure is taking far too long because of the fact that they're just understaffed, and they weren't expecting this. None of these soldiers were put into that base to operate this. So it is definitely something that they're struggling with.

FADEL: Jamal Elshayyal of Al-Jazeera reporting from Qatar. Thank you. And we should note that Al-Jazeera is funded by the government of Qatar. One week from today, the U.S. is supposed to finish an evacuation from Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Last night, the House Intelligence Committee received a briefing on the operation, and Chairman Adam Schiff said he doubts the U.S. can finish by that deadline.


ADAM SCHIFF: I think it's possible, but I think it's very unlikely, given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated, the number of SIVs, the number of others who are members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell joins us now. Hi, Kelsey.


FADEL: So what are you hearing on Capitol Hill about the evacuation effort?

SNELL: There is real bipartisan criticism of the way this has been handled. I would say that in particular, Republicans are extremely critical. Democrats, on the other hand, have been a little bit more nuanced. They generally criticize the manner in which the withdrawal was handled. You know, they say it was chaotic and should have been predicted, but some still support the ultimate goal of leaving Afghanistan. You know, some of the criticism has been a bit quieter since the evacuation stepped up. And there are briefings this week which may raise more questions for lawmakers. Ultimately, we don't know how long this will be an issue for voters. And in turn, we don't know how long Congress will stay focused on this, as is often the case in Washington. You know, the administration has been generally betting on Americans being safely evacuated and the nation's attention shifting to, you know, the other domestic issues that are happening in the country.

FADEL: I want to turn to another big story. House Democrats are running into opposition from some members of their own party to passing a $3.5 trillion budget framework. What happened last night?

SNELL: Well, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been trying to satisfy demands from the two very different wings of her party. On the one hand, you have progressives who want to get moving on a $3.5 trillion budget framework that you mentioned because they say that could help them pass a lot of major priorities, like addressing climate change, paid family leave, child care programs, things like that. But the moderate wing of the party has been pushing for an immediate vote on the Senate-passed $1 trillion infrastructure bill. You know, the solution so far has been to try to tie the fate of those two priorities together. Pelosi is essentially saying they have to move together, or nothing moves at all. They've reached an impasse last night after some moderates refused to agree to that approach. So after a lot of haggling and arguing, they called it a night, and they plan to try again later today. Plan is to use a procedural workaround to pass the budget resolution without ever actually having to vote on it, which - you know, that may sound crazy, but it isn't unprecedented, and it's fully within the rules. And that means that the House and Senate could actually start writing the spending plan they've been talking about with a big goal of passing it all by October 1.

FADEL: So how do leaders plan to move forward now?

SNELL: You know, if they can go through with this procedural workaround, you know, they're hoping that cooler heads will prevail, and they'll move forward. But I will say that I would expect a lot more public fighting like we're seeing right now. And we could be seeing it through the end of the year. Democrats won their majority by pitching themselves as a big tent, and some of that means negotiating through the two factions. And they'll have to come up with a consensus not just on this, but they also have to increase the debt limit. They have to agree on big priorities and, you know, the structure of how much money the federal government should be spending. So it is going to be a long and arduous battle if they hope to get this done.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.


FADEL: We could soon find out new details about the origins of COVID-19.

INSKEEP: That's right. President Biden today learns some findings of a review by intelligence agencies. They pursued the evidence to answer questions like whether the virus developed in nature or in a lab.

FADEL: Joining us to talk about it is NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Geoff, remind us why the Biden administration took on this review.

BRUMFIEL: Right. Well, as you said at the top, there's sort of two theories about how this pandemic started. Number one is that it came from nature, probably started in bats and came through intermediate animals that were being sold at markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Theory number two is that a laboratory leaked the virus, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the chief suspect there because it studied coronaviruses. Now, the Trump administration was pushing that lab theory quite hard. Republicans in Congress have continued that push. And so in May, Biden announced a 90-day review of the intelligence.

FADEL: And what does that involve?

BRUMFIEL: Well, basically, the nation's intelligence agencies are rechecking all the stuff they've already collected to see if there was anything that they missed. That could include everything from intercepted communications, databases, information from people on the ground, any of which might shed some light on where the virus came from. The president will be briefed first. Then it'll go to some members of Congress. And eventually, there's going to be an unclassified version.

FADEL: Now, is this report expected to settle, once and for all, the question of where the virus came from? I mean, up until a few months ago, the lab leak theory was something many dismissed as conspiracy or fringe?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, you know, I've been talking to scientists and folks from the intelligence world. And honestly, everyone's pretty doubtful, actually, this report can completely put the question to rest. I mean, first of all, intelligence agencies were not particularly focused on the city of Wuhan or bat virus research labs before the pandemic. So it's not really clear how much intelligence they would have collected in late 2019. And that's the time period that really matters here. On the scientific side, it just takes a lot of diligent legwork to figure out where viruses come from. With the original SARS virus from the early 2000s, scientists were able to eventually track it down to a cave full of bats, but it took years and a lot of samples and tromping all over China. It's not the type of thing you can do reviewing data on a computer.

FADEL: So are we ever going to really know definitively how this outbreak started?

BRUMFIEL: You know, there's always a chance this intel report is going to hold some bombshell. But assuming it doesn't, it's not looking that great. And the real problem here is China itself. The Chinese government specifically has refused to share data about the early pandemic. It's blocking investigators from the World Health Organization. And, I mean, lately, it's really been pushing an idea that this virus came from an American lab, which is just false. I mean, there's no way that could've happened. So the folks I speak to all agree that the Chinese government is involved in a cover-up. The question is, what are they covering up? Is it a lab leak or a natural spillover? And unfortunately, the answer to that really matters, but it's going to be hard to sort out without more cooperation from China.

FADEL: NPR's science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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