Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.
Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology
Ryan Gallagher [The Intercept] reports that the UK’s spy agency, GCHQ “secretly coveted the NSA’s vast troves of private communications and sought ‘unsupervised access’ to its data as recently as last year – essentially begging to feast at the NSA’s table while insisting that it only nibbles on the occasional crumb.” The documents, provided by Edward Snowden, reveal that the NSA was “supportive” of the idea, but do not show whether it granted GCHQ’s request.
According to statistics made public by the Justice Department, federal surveillance orders “declined slightly” last year, although the FISC did not reject a single government surveillance request [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].
In his first public comments, new NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers admitted “the nation has lost a measure of trust” in his agency, but said that in the future, “[w]e are not going to hide our mistakes” [Politico’s Shaun Waterman].
And Der Spiegel (Nikolaus Blome et al.) reports that while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is “still angered” by revelations of U.S. spying on her communications, she will instead focus on the situation in Ukraine and free trade during her White House visit this week.
The State Department has published its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, including a fact sheet outlining the noteworthy counterterrorism developments in 2013. The report states that while al-Qaeda’s “core leadership has been degraded” as a result of worldwide counterterrorism efforts, last year “saw the rise of increasingly aggressive and autonomous AQ affiliates and like-minded groups in the Middle East and Africa who took advantage of the weak governance and instability in the region to broaden and deepen their operations.” CNN (Jamie Crawford and Elise Labott) and Politico (Philip Ewing) provide more details on the report.
Pro-Moscow separatists took control of government buildings in more Ukrainian towns yesterday, “in a further sign that authorities in Kiev are losing control of the country’s [east]” [Reuters’ Marko Djurica].
Ukraine has expelled a naval attaché at Moscow’s embassy in Kiev, accusing the officer of “activities incompatible with diplomatic status,” indicating allegations of espionage [New York Times’ Neil Macfarquhar and Alan Cowell].
The Wall Street Journal (Philip Shishkin) reports that the strategy for pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine appears to be to “seek legitimacy through [a] referendum” and “claim victory regardless of turnout.”
The International Monetary Fund has approved a $17.1bn bailout for Ukraine, which will be released over two years [BBC].
Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlăţean told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth that “[t]he Russian threat is a reality.” Corlăţean said Romania’s expectation “is for a more substantial American military presence in Romania and maybe a permanent military base of NATO.”
Department of Defense
The Senate has confirmed Robert O. Work, a retired Marine Corps colonel, as the next deputy secretary of defense [DoD News].
The Washington Post (Greg Miller and Adam Goldman) reports that two top officers at the Defense Intelligence Agency–Director Michael T. Flynn and Deputy David Shedd—will retire from their positions in the coming months. According to current and former officials, the move is “part of a leadership shake-up at [the] agency.”
A new bill proposed this week would require the Department of Defense to establish an office co-ordinating all of the Pentagon’s unmanned systems, including acquisition, research, development and experimentation [USNI News’ Dave Majumdar].
The House Armed Services personnel subcommittee voted unanimously yesterday to leave in place the current military health care system and much of the other military benefits [Associated Press’ Donna Cassata].
The Hill (Kristina Wong) reports that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia will lack a crucial military underpinning next year,” as the Navy will not have an aircraft carrier in the region for four months.
The White House is facing new accusations of political maneuvering over the 2012 Benghazi attack, following the release of the newly declassified emails by Judicial Watch [Fox News; Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee et al.].
National Security Council spokesperson said that the recently released emails on the 2012 Benghazi attack reflect “what the administration was saying at the time and what we understood to be the facts at the time” [Politico’s Jonathan Topaz]. And White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the email with the “goals” for then-U.S. ambassador Susan Rice “were not about Benghazi,” but about “the general situation in the Muslim world” [The Hill’s Justin Sink].
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes that the email about preparing Rice for her media appearances “shows a White House political operative trying to protect his boss two months before Election Day.”
The Washington Post (Ernesto Londoño and Greg Miller) reports that according to U.S. officials, the Syrian regime is holding on to the remaining 8 percent of its chemical weapons stockpile “as leverage” in negotiations with the international community over the future of its weapons storage facilities and network of tunnels used to transport the chemicals.
A Syrian government fighter jet fired a missile at a school in the city of Aleppo yesterday, killing 47 people, including children, according to activists [Wall Street Journal’s Maria Abi-Habib]. The government issued a statement saying it had carried out operations against terrorists in Aleppo, but did not acknowledge the strike on the school.
UN Emergency Coordinator Valerie Amos has briefed the Security Council on the worsening situation in Syria, stating “the onus rests on the Council to not only recognize that reality, but to act on it” [UN News Centre].
Jyllands-Posten (Orla Borg et al.) reports on the “renewed focus on Denmark’s role in the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki,” an American citizen and alleged al-Qaeda operative who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The Open Society Justice Initiative has filed a number of freedom of information requests with the Danish government demanding disclosure of further information.
According to reports in Arabic media outlets, the Yemeni government is expanding its offensive against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen [The Long War Journal’s Oren Adaki].
In a new report to Congress, the U.S. special investigator for Afghanistan reconstruction, John F. Sopko says that widespread corruption in Afghanistan threatens the country’s long-term prospects [McClatchy DC’s James Rosen]. The report also states that “U.S. implementing agencies have not always exercised sufficient oversight of their massive spending [in Afghanistan].”
The Washington Post editorial board writes that the U.S. is “abetting chaos in Egypt.” The board argues that the Obama administration “is giving the Sissi regime a vote of confidence even as it installs the most repressive regime Egypt has known in at least half a century.”
Meanwhile, at a meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on Wednesday, Hagel reportedly “stressed the role of political inclusiveness and dissent in the democratic process and asked Minister Fahmy to help encourage peaceful dissent by releasing activists and journalists who have been detained.”
Millions of Iraqis voted in yesterday’s elections, the first since U.S. withdrawal, while an “unprecedented security operation thwart[ed] several suicide attacks at polling stations across the country,” reports Al Jazeera (Barry Malone).
CNN (Greg Botelho) reports that three people have died in a suspected terror attack in China’s northwestern region, while at least 79 others were injured.
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