News Roundup and Notes: May 9, 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 Intelligence Committee advanced a version of the USA Freedom Act yesterday, “unexpectedly approving that measure while electing not to hold a vote on its own competing bill to reform National Security Agency surveillance” [Politico’s Alex Byers and Josh Gerstein]. The text of the bill is the same as that cleared by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, suggesting that the USA Freedom Act will be “the legislative vehicle for further activity in the House on surveillance reform.”

The UK’s Home Affairs Select Committee has published a report calling for reform of the oversight of the country’s security and intelligence agencies [The Guardian’s Alan Travis]. The report concludes that the mass surveillance disclosures are “an embarrassing indictment” of the current weak oversight and accountability of GCHQ and other agencies.

Politico (Darren Samuelsohn) has learned that former NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander is setting up a consulting firm for financial institutions that are seeking to address cybersecurity threats.

Syria

UN-OPCW joint mission chief Sigrid Kaag said that the remaining 8% of Syria’s chemical materials – which include the precursors needed to make sarin gas – is being blocked by rebel-held roads [Wall Street Journal’s Joe Lauria]. Kaag added that there are only 16 containers now that are required to be moved out of Syria.

The Treasury Department has sanctioned a Russian bank and its senior executive “for providing material support and services to the Government of Syria, including the Central Bank of Syria and SYTROL, Syria’s state oil marketing firm.” The move indicates “a stepped-up U.S. financial campaign against the Kremlin,” reports the Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon).

The New York Times’ Somini Sengupta covers how the “the paralysis over Syria has marked a new level of dysfunction [at the UN Security Council] …  and has given a fillip to those who call for a fundamental shake-up of the Council’s composition and rules of engagement.”

The deal to evacuate insurgents from Homs “hit a snag” yesterday, after rebels in Aleppo province blocked a humanitarian convoy from accessing two villages [New York Times’ Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad]. Meanwhile, the rebel alliance, the Islamic Front, bombed a hotel in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which government troops were using as a military base, killing at least 14 soldiers, according to activists [Associated Press]. And Lebanon has ordered the deportation of dozens of Palestinian refugees back to Syria in a change of policy [Al Jazeera’s Moe Ali Nayel].

Benghazi

The House voted 232-186 yesterday to create a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack, in a move supported by seven Democrats [The Hill’s Cristina Marcos and Russell Berman]. Democrats will meet today to discuss whether to appoint lawmakers to the committee [Politico’s Jake Sherman].

Charles Krauthammer [Washington Post] considers how the committee’s hearings should be conducted. In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan writes that the investigation “should go forward but with knowledge that it will face heavy partisan and media pushback.” And the New York Times editorial board criticizes the decision to create the Benghazi select committee.

Ukraine

Russia held its annual parade today to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, “amid a surge of patriotism over the annexation of Crimea,” reports the BBC. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since flown to Crimea to oversee a similar parade.

The U.S. has begun a new military exercise with Estonia, “amid no indication of a Russian troop pullback from its border with Ukraine” [DoD News].

The administration’s top official in Europe, Victoria Nuland told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the next phase of economic sanctions would target broad sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow seeks to undermine Ukraine’s presidential election this month [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan].

The Economist explores “[h]ow to treat signs that Russia at last wants to lower tensions,” and warns that “as the diplomacy takes its course, the West must sustain its pressure on Russia and its support for Ukraine.”

The Daily Beast (Jamie Dettmer) considers whether the pro-Russian insurgents are really defying Putin by choosing to go ahead with the secession referendum, or whether this is another part of Putin’s “web of intrigue.”

Georgia’s Defense Minister has said his country is taking steps to secure NATO membership, in an effort to deter Russian aggression against former Soviet nations [Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon].

And on the ground, Ukrainian troops have clashed with pro-Russian separatists in the port town of Mariupol, killing eight people and wounding others [Reuters].

Iraq

In an exclusive report, Foreign Policy (Gordon Lubold) outlines how the Iraqi government “is actively seeking armed drones from the U.S. to combat al Qaeda …, and in a significant reversal, would welcome American military drone operators back into the country to target those militants on its behalf,” according to those familiar with the matter.

The Washington Post (Loveday Morris) reports that Iraq is struggling to contain the conflict in its Anbar province, while militants from Syria, who are often better equipped than Iraqi troops, continue to cross into Iraq.

Afghanistan

U.S. officials say that the CIA’s unexpected abrupt plans to close its satellite bases in Afghanistan and withdraw personnel this summer is causing the military to fear the loss of intelligence, while thousands of troops still remain in the country, reports the Los Angeles Times (David S. Cloud).

The Diplomat (Niharika Betkerur) notes that India has concluded a deal with Moscow to pay for military equipment, sourced from Russia, for Afghanistan, making it clear that it has “no plans to abandon Afghanistan post-2014.”

The Taliban launched a large-scale attack involving more than 100 fighters on a police checkpoint in western Afghanistan this morning, wounding at least 11 police officers [Associated Press].

Nigeria

Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S.’s interagency team is now in Nigeria, working with the Nigerian government “to do everything that we possibly can to return [the abducted] girls to their families and their communities.” Kerry also pledged commitment “to do everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram.”

And Michael R. Gordon [New York Times] covers how the Boko Haram abduction has led to new scrutiny of the U.S.’s terrorism strategy.

Other developments

A pre-publication review policy from the ODNI requires all ODNI personnel “to submit all official and non-official information intended for public release for review” [FAS’s Secrecy News’ Stephen Aftergood]. Charlie Savage [New York Times] highlights the important features of the new policy, which effectively “clamp[s] down on a technique that government officials have long used to join in public discussions of well-known but technically still-secret information: citing news reports based on unauthorized disclosures.”

In his first public comments since the failure of the Middle East peace talks, U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk placed blame on both sides, referencing Israeli settlement-building as well as Palestine’s bid to join international conventions [Reuters’ Arshad Mohammed]. Indyk also suggested talks may eventually resume. Meanwhile, international human rights groups have urged Palestinian authorities to seek membership of the ICC, citing a lack of accountability for alleged crimes committed by both sides in the conflict [Al Jazeera].

The Pentagon said it remains “firmly” behind President Obama’s 2015 defense budget request, despite little support from the House Armed Services Committee [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted yesterday to subpoena the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and other top officials, in relation to allegations that secret waiting lists were used to cover up long delays for medical appointments [New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel Jr.].

Yemen has deported the only U.S. journalist officially reporting from the country [Buzzfeed’s Gregory D. Johnsen], although the Yemen Post is reporting that the journalist, Adam Baron, was “forced to leave Yemen as kidnapping of foreigners reaches peak.”

The Guardian (Jon Swaine) covers the testimony of Abu Hamza al-Masri at his terror trial in New York.

Pakistan has released on bail the FBI agent who attempted to board a flight while carrying ammunition [Associated Press]. The quick release was “likely to prevent the situation from escalating into a diplomatic spat.”

A UN report on South Sudan documents the gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that have been committed by both sides in the conflict, which began last December [UN News Centre].

The Wall Street Journal (Brian Spegele and Vu Trong Khanh) notes that the recent China-Vietnam clash confirms “what Washington and regional governments have long feared: Beijing is taking a major leap in the defense of its territorial claims, testing the resolve of rattled neighbors—as well as the U.S.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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