News Roundup and Notes: May 8, 2014

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

The House Judiciary Committee voted 32-0 yesterday to advance the NSA reform bill that would end the agency’s mass collection of phone data [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. The White House welcomed the vote as “a very good first step” toward reforming the NSA’s surveillance program, and applauded the committee for “approaching this issue on a bipartisan basis” [The Hill’s Justin Sink].

Meanwhile, German lawmakers are leaning in favor of questioning Edward Snowden as part of an investigation into the U.S.’s surveillance activities, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration’s fears that the move could damage relations with the U.S. [Wall Street Journal’s Harriet Torry].

Syria

According to sources, France has drafted a Security Council resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been tailored “specifically to address American sensitivities,” [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta]. Colum Lynch [Foreign Policy’s The Cable] reports that the Obama administration has decided to back the France-led effort to refer Syria to the ICC. According to diplomats, the U.S. was ready to support the text after ensuring that the ICC would have no authority to investigate Israel, which has occupied the disputed Golan Heights since 1967. [For further analysis, check out Just Security’s Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s post from last October on why the U.S. failure to support an ICC referral for Syria would not protect Israeli or American interests.]

Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition, has said that he will ask the Obama administration to provide antiaircraft missiles while in Washington this week [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt]. Jarba also confirmed reports that the opposition had received U.S. antitank missiles.

The Wall Street Journal (Maria Abi-Habib) reports on allegations that a U.S. backed opposition faction, the Free Syrian Army, is co-operating with al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to counter the Syrian regime. However, Jarba’s delegation in Washington has denied these claims.

As hundreds of rebels were evacuated from their last stronghold in the Syrian city of Homs [BBC], CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen considers what the Homs truce means for the broader conflict.

Ukraine

In remarks that “appeared to open a way to resolving the standoff over Ukraine,” Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on rebels in Ukraine’s east to delay the planned May 11 referendum on secession, while also adding that Russian forces have been pulled back from the Ukraine border [Al Jazeera America]. Putin also called the May 25 presidential election a step “in the right direction,” but said it needed to be preceded by constitutional reforms.

However, pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s east have ignored Putin’s calls for a delay, announcing today that Sunday’s secession referendum will go ahead as planned [Associated Press].

Meanwhile, the White House has dismissed Putin’s statement that Russian troops have stepped away from the border, saying there is “no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. NATO similarly said it has not seen “any signs” of withdrawal [The Globe and Mail’s Mark Mackinnon].

Nigel Stephenson [Reuters] reports that Putin’s latest comments are “a clear sign that he wants to take the heat out of [the] worst East-West row since the Cold War.”

According to European diplomats, European governments have reached an agreement to expand the EU’s list of sanction targets when ministers meet in Brussels next week [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman].

And NATO officials say that the alliance’s experts have advised Ukrainian authorities on improving the safety of nuclear power plants and other infrastructure, “amid growing violence and fears of conflict with Russia” [Reuters’ Adrian Croft].

Benghazi

The Hill (Mike Lillis and Russell Berman) covers how the partisan battle over the Benghazi inquiry “reached a fever pitch Wednesday on the eve of a House vote to establish the investigative panel.” While Speaker John Boehner emphasized his goal of “a serious investigation,” at least three Democratic leaders called for a boycott unless both parties are given equal membership on the panel. Politico (Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer) reports that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is also contemplating either a total boycott or appointing fewer Democratic members than allocated, according to aides.

In an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she does “not believe there is any reason” for the Benghazi investigation to continue. While former CIA acting Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN (Jake Tapper) that he hopes that the panel “would come to its task with an open mind and with a desire to find the truth,” but said that “it appears that at least [Rep. Trey Gowdy] has already made up his mind on certain points.”

Yemen

Yemeni officials said that security forces have killed an al-Qaeda affiliated “ringleader,” Wael al-Waeli, who was allegedly responsible for the killings and kidnappings of several foreigners and other criminal operations [NBC News’ Hasani Gittens and Charlene Gubash].

Even as the Yemeni government continued its offensive against militants in the country, al-Qaeda pledged to increase its attacks in Yemen’s main cities, reports the Wall Street Journal (Ellen Knickmeyer and Hakim Almasmari).

And the U.S. has temporarily suspended operations at its embassy in Sanaa in Yemen “[d]ue to recent attacks against Western interests in Yemen [CNN’s Barbarra Starr].

Afghanistan

The Washington Post (Ernesto Londoño) reports that the State Department has “dramatically ramped up the approval of resettlement visas for Afghan military interpreters.” Under a bill that House and Senate members plan to introduce today, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program would continue to run until the end of 2015 and be open to 3,000 additional applicants.

The Taliban have announced the launch of their annual “spring offensive,” the final series of attacks on foreign bases, embassies, and translators before NATO withdrawal at the end of the year [AFP].

Nigeria

Hundreds of people have been killed in northeast Nigeria, in the latest attack believed to be carried out by Boko Haram militants, while more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by the group remain missing [Al Jazeera].

As the Obama administration prepares to send a team of specialists to assist in the search for the missing girls, some lawmakers are calling for a stronger response to the actions of Boko Haram [Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño and Anne Gearan].

Josh Rogin [The Daily Beast] writes that Hillary Clinton’s State Department “fought hard against placing … Boko Haram on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations for two years,” which “may have hampered the American government’s ability to confront the Nigerian group.” And the New York Times provides further information on the extremist group.

Other developments

McClatchy DC (Jonathan S. Landay) notes that the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation program is likely to take several months, according to experts. The declassification process requires not only the CIA, but also other intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, and the State Department to evaluate any information provided.

The New York Times (Benjamin Weiser) and Wall Street Journal (Charles Levinson) report on the developments in the trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri, who has denied any role in a 1998 hostage taking in Yemen, as well as other terrorism charges.

Ahead of his meeting with President Obama this week, Uruguayan President José Mujica said his country would take up to six prisoners from Guantánamo, provided they would be allowed to live freely in Uruguay, “like any citizen” [Wall Street Journal’s Ken Parks].

The defense team for alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has asked for statements Tsarnaev made to the FBI while in hospital to be excluded from the trial, on the basis that he repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but was denied one [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

The House Armed Services Committee has voted against an amendment to remove the decision-making power of commanders over military sexual assault within their chain of command [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

Pakistani authorities have said that the FBI agent who has been jailed on weapons charges will remain in custody until the weekend [Washington Post’s Tim Craig]. A hearing before a judge has been scheduled for Saturday.

CNN (Zoe Lin) reports that tensions in the South China Sea region continue to escalate, as Vietnamese officials accused Chinese ships of intimidating its vessels near disputed islands.

South Korea has confirmed that the three drones recently discovered near its borders came from North Korea [Wall Street Journal’s Jeyup S. Kwaak and Jonathan Cheng].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).