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Morning news brief


Russian forces have begun an offensive in Ukraine.


Tens of thousands of new troops are forcing Ukrainian soldiers to pull back. This Russian attack comes near the one-year anniversary of the invasion. Ukraine's American allies expect to see more fighting in the weeks ahead. General Mark Milley spoke with our colleague Leila Fadel this week.

MARK MILLEY: Now, as we get into the spring as thaw comes here in probably a few more weeks - you're looking at the March-April time frame - you are likely to see more movement, more offensive operations. So I do think this is a critical moment.

INSKEEP: That interview is part of an upcoming NPR special on the war's first year. NPR's Tom Bowman, our Pentagon correspondent, is here to talk about the second year. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the Russians really doing?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems the Russians have started their counteroffensive. And what they want to do is gain even more ground in the eastern part of the country, in the Donbas, with the first-year anniversary coming next week. A lot more troops are heading in, and the sense is more towns in the east will fall to the Russian forces, who, again, are trying to make gains. Russia is taking huge amounts of casualties, and they've lost a lot of tanks and armor. But, again, tens of thousands of Russian troops flowing in. And, Steve, this is saying that quantity has a quality all its own, and that comes from a former Soviet leader named Joseph Stalin.

INSKEEP: Tom, Ukrainian officials began 2023 talking about moving the other way, as did their American supporters; talking about a Ukrainian offensive or counteroffensive to take even more territory back from the Russians. What happened to that?

BOWMAN: Well, we're likely to see it and, as General Milley said, probably sometime in the spring, maybe April or even into May, when the ground dries out - and also when they get their tanks and armor and better-trained troops. Ukrainian troops are training in England in small units, and larger units are doing training at U.S. training facilities in Germany. They want to make sure they have, again, all the armor and the trained troops before they mount this counteroffensive.

INSKEEP: I want to call attention to something General Milley said. He said this is a critical moment. But people are always saying that various moments in this war are critical moments. What about this particular set of offensives and counteroffensives would be critical?

BOWMAN: Well, I think it's critical for the Ukrainians. They have to show NATO and the U.S. that they can actually achieve something. Can they push the Russians back in the eastern part of the country? Or can they, as some say - will likely head south and split that Russian land bridge that goes from Russia to Crimea? The sense is they may push into Melitopol on the Sea of Azov. That would prevent the Russians from supplying their forces in Crimea because the only other way in by land is that bridge that you remember the Ukrainians partially destroyed a while back.

But what can the Ukrainians achieve? Now, they say they want to push all the Russians out of the entire country. General Milley and others have said, you're not going to able to do that. And also, the Russians wanted to take the entire country. General Milley said they can't do that either. So what can they do?

INSKEEP: U.S. officials have said again and again they will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. But let me interrogate that a little bit. Is there something of a time pressure here for the Ukrainians, that they know that their support from the international community maybe can't go forever?

BOWMAN: I think that's probably right. If they can't achieve much, you may start to see some European countries start to say, we can't keep this thing going forever. The United States may say, we're with you right to the end. But you might see some of those European countries, because of the cost of this, saying, you know what? It's really time to sit down at a negotiating table.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.


KHALID: Some residents of East Palestine, Ohio, contend that a chemical spill is making them sick.

INSKEEP: Residents are back at home two weeks after that highly publicized train wreck. The Norfolk Southern train carried hazardous materials. The railroad says it's going to clean up that spill, and federal authorities told people who evacuated that it was safe to return. But a different view emerged at a community meeting last night.

KHALID: Ideastream Public Media's Abigail Bottar attended that meeting. And, Abigail, I just want to begin by asking you to describe what the atmosphere was like.

ABIGAIL BOTTAR, BYLINE: It was pretty contentious. A lot of people showed up. It was a couple hundred residents from the surrounding areas. They were angry and frustrated with the lack of information they were getting, and the railroad wasn't in attendance at this meeting last night. Candice Desanzo evacuated the area with her children shortly after the derailment but returned when the evacuation order was lifted. Now she's second-guessing that decision.

CANDICE DESANZO: We all have red rashes, loose stool, congestion, eyes burning. Everything smells. I've been having terrible headaches.

BOTTAR: And she wasn't the only one. Many residents have been complaining about fumes around town and how they're impacting their health, particularly near the site of the derailment and a local creek.

KHALID: Yeah. So how is the EPA responding to these complaints? What are they saying?

BOTTAR: The EPA, both the U.S. and the Ohio agencies - both reiterated that the air and the water are both safe in East Palestine and that they're going to continue to monitor it. An official with the EPA at the meeting last night said they are also smelling the fumes residents were complaining about. They said they know the chemical that's causing it but say they're not detecting levels high enough that could actually impact human health.

KHALID: Got it. And how are people - how are residents there responding to this information?

BOTTAR: I would say they're just not satisfied with that answer. It's not matching up with what their lived experience is and knowing people who are actually experiencing these symptoms themselves. And they don't know what the actual impact of these chemicals are going to have on their health, really, now and what's going to happen in the future. And a lot of residents are also saying that they feel like they're not getting enough attention from government agencies and officials. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has been to East Palestine a few times in the past couple of weeks, but residents like Kirsten Miller say that's not enough.

KIRSTEN MILLER: Would DeWine want his family to go live on the tracks where my family lives? Would he feel safe? No. But instead of entering us into a state of emergency and calling in FEMA, this is what they want to do. They want to brush us under the rug like nothing ever happened, and that's what's being done.

BOTTAR: And while the cause of the accident is still under investigation, residents say there needs to be more accountability from Norfolk Southern.

KHALID: Norfolk Southern, the railroad operator there. You mentioned earlier that officials from Norfolk Southern were not in attendance at the meeting. How are they responding to what residents are saying?

BOTTAR: They say they will continue to respond to community concerns despite the fact that they weren't at the meeting. A few hours before the meeting, Norfolk Southern released a statement saying representatives would not be in attendance despite that being the plan. They said this was, quote, "due to a growing physical threat to employees and members of the community." I have not been able to substantiate any of those claims with community members or the mayor.

But Norfolk Southern has been reimbursing people for costs incurred due to the evacuation. They also recently set up a charitable fund to support the community. But residents were really angry that they weren't at the meeting last night and that they couldn't bring their concerns directly to Norfolk Southern. Already, several people and business owners have filed class action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern.

KHALID: So at this point, do we have any idea how long the cleanup of this site will take?

BOTTAR: Norfolk Southern actually submitted a remediation plan to the Ohio EPA this week detailing how they plan to clean up the site. Some of that is already underway. The remediation plan includes collecting and testing soil samples, among other things, but the entire process won't be quick. Officials say remediation efforts could take years. Both the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA say they will remain on the scene to continue monitoring air and water and to ensure nothing impacts community health.

KHALID: That's Ideastream Public Media's Abigail Bottar, who's been covering the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Thanks very much for your reporting, Abigail.

BOTTAR: You're welcome.


KHALID: The special management unit at the Thomson Penitentiary in Illinois is one of the deadliest prison units in America.

INSKEEP: Which we know because of reporting by NPR in conjunction with the Marshall Project. Now, because of those dangerous conditions, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is shutting this facility down.

KHALID: NPR's investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro helped uncover what was happening at Thomson, and he's here with us now. Good morning, Joe.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Asma.

KHALID: So, Joe, remind us what your reporting discovered.

SHAPIRO: Well, we found that Thomson, which is the newest federal prison, had quickly become, as you said, one of the deadliest - five prisoners killed, two suicides in just two years. And by the way, there was another death just this month.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

SHAPIRO: And our reporting focused on the cause of this violence, which was a culture of abuse by staff that the Bureau of Prisons says is the reason that it's now shutting down this unit. And this is reporting I did with Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. A key moment to our reporting came when a prisoner named Demetrius Hill sent us a note that he'd witnessed one prisoner attacking and killing another and...

KHALID: Oh, my gosh.

SHAPIRO: ...That the attacker - he had warned the guards he was going to kill his cellmate, a small man named Bobby Everson who was known as Loopy. And even on the night of the killing, he said he was about to kill Loopy, and our eyewitness, Demetrius Hill, says the corrections officer said, go ahead; just do it. And here's tape from Hill when we got to speak to him from prison.

DEMETRIUS HILL: To force this kid in a cell with this madman - they knew the result. He had just beaten another prisoner who had been in the cell with him. I'm talking about maybe two weeks prior. Another prisoner - I don't know his name, and he was beating that inmate for days on end. Days on end, he was beating that prisoner. Finally, they took him out and stuffed Loopy in there.

KHALID: Wow, a very powerful story, Joe. I mean, after all of your reporting, there were calls for investigations from Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth as well as human rights and religious groups. Where did all that go?

SHAPIRO: Well, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation, and so did the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And now the BOP says it found persistent problems with what it called institutional culture and compliance with BOP policies - in other words, problems that were so deep, so rotten that they couldn't even be fixed. There's a new director at the Federal Prison Agency, Colette Peters, and this is one of her first big moves.

KHALID: So what happens next, Joe? I mean, my understanding from your reporting is that this unit was supposed to be the place within the prison system that housed some of its most dangerous inmates. So where do they go?

SHAPIRO: That's right, Asma. The special management unit was set up to separate men who created serious problems at other prisons. They were leaders of prison gangs. They were violent, although in our reporting, we talked to men who didn't seem to fit that description. Maybe they had untreated mental illness. The mother of one man killed at Thomson said he'd ended up there because he'd filed complaints against guards at another prison after they'd forced him into a fight with members of a white supremacist gang.

It's been seven years since Christie Thompson and I wrote our first stories on these federal special management units. And first, we reported on abuse at the unit at Lewisburg, Pa. And shortly after that, Lewisburg was shut down. We followed up to see what happened to the men who were moved from Lewisburg to Thomson, and we'll keep watching.

KHALID: NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro. Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're so welcome. 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.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.