News Roundup and Notes: May 20, 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 Intercept (Ryan Devereaux et al.) reports that the NSA is “intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation [in] the Bahamas” and an unnamed country under its top-secret SOMALGET program, which allows the agency to replay all conversations for up to a month. SOMALGET is part of the broader NSA program codenamed MYSTIC; however, while MYSTIC targets metadata, SOMALGET extends to the actual content of every conversation.

WikiLeaks has threatened to reveal the name of the second, censored country referred to in The Intercept report, despite Glenn Greenwald stating that The Intercept withheld the name as it was “very convinced” that publication would lead to “deaths” [Business Insider’s Michael Kelley].

Legislative aides have been working to craft the terms of the surveillance reform bill, the USA Freedom Act, so as to prevent the possibility of loopholes, which the NSA might be able to exploit, reports The Guardian (Spencer Ackerman).

Under a bill making its way through California’s state legislature, the federal government would require a judicial warrant if it wants the assistance of California officials to search residents’ cellphone and computer records [Reuters’ Sharon Bernstein].

The Justice Department unsealed an indictment yesterday against five officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for “serious cybersecurity breaches against six American victim entities” that appear to have been carried out “for no reason other than to advantage state-owned companies and other interests in China … a tactic that the U.S. government categorically denounces.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the U.S. charges, and instead, stated [Washington Post’s William Wan]:

“For a long time, it has been obvious that the relevant U.S. departments have been carrying out large-scale, organized cybertheft and cyber-surveillance on foreign dignitaries, corporations and individuals. China is the victim of U.S. cybertheft and cyber-surveillance.”

David E. Sanger [New York Times] notes that the administration’s approach, which seeks to draw a distinction between surveillance for national security reasons and that for commercial purposes, “has relatively few advocates around the world.” And the Wall Street Journal editorial argues that “as a defense against Chinese cyber warfare, the indictment by itself will accomplish little.”

Guantánamo 

Following last Friday’s ruling, two further Guantánamo hunger strikers have requested the DC District Court to preserve recordings of their force-feeding [Reprieve]. According to the motions submitted on behalf of the detainees, the Department of Defense’s response to the petition to date has “left open the possibility that evidence had in fact been destroyed and suggests that the Department of Defense did not even know and had not yet made any effort to determine whether evidence had in fact been destroyed.”

Terrorism cases

Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri has been convicted of all 11 terrorism charges by a federal jury in Manhattan, including providing material support to terrorist organizations and sending men to establish an al-Qaeda training camp in Oregon [Associated Press’ Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays; New York Times’ Benjamin Weiser]. Attorney General Eric Holder welcomed the verdict, stating that “the debate over how to best seek justice in these cases is quietly being put to rest.”

Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday that there were no signs of Russian troops withdrawing from Ukraine’s border, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most recent comments [CNN’s Matthew Chance et al.]. A White House official also said that the U.S. will be “tracking this closely over … the coming days, and we’ll want to see clear, firm evidence of this move before we make any judgment.” The Russian Defense Ministry said, however, that it would take time for its troops to dismantle their camps and complete withdrawal, reports the Associated Press.

The Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova explains why, according to political experts, Putin is likely to keep his word this time and pull back Russian forces.

NASA chief Charles Bolden responded to Russia’s announcement to end cooperation on the International Space Station after 2020, stating that no one country is “indispensable” to the agency’s operations [NPR’s Scott Neuman].

Switzerland has added 13 more people to its sanctions list in order to prevent the named individuals from circumventing the sanctions designed by the EU last week [Wall Street Journal’s John Revill].

The Washington Post editorial board writes that “Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s national election must carry consequences,” namely “meaningful sanctions on the pillars that prop up the Russian economy.”

And the New York Times (Neil Macfarquhar and David M. Herszenhorn) covers how the crisis in Ukraine is pushing Putin toward China.

Boko Haram

The U.S. has reached an agreement with Nigeria that allows it to share intelligence with the Nigerian government in the efforts to rescue the abducted school girls, although it will withhold the majority of the raw intelligence data [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes].

AFP reports that according to analysts, the declaration of “war” on Boko Haram by African leaders last weekend is a game changer and an important step toward tackling the militant group.

Libya

Libya’s special forces unit has decided to support the former Libyan general, who has accused the interim government of backing the country’s militia [Al Jazeera]. Meanwhile, the government has suggested suspending parliament until the next election, within three months, in order to avoid a civil war.

As the country is taken over by some of the worst violence since the 2011 revolution, CNN (Jomana Karadsheh and Barbara Starr) has learned that the U.S. has doubled the number of aircraft available if required to evacuate Americans from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.

The Washington Post (Abigail Hauslohner and Sharif Abdel Kouddous) provides more detail on Khalifa Hiftar, the former general at the center of the uprisings, who spent years in the U.S. as an exiled opposition leader before returning to Libya during the 2011 revolution.

Other developments

The Hill (Kristina Wong) reports that the Obama administration is moving away from drones and relying to a greater extent on training and equipping foreign governments in its fight against terrorism, prompting criticism over whether the U.S. should depend on unstable foreign governments.

The administration’s senior counterterrorism adviser has assured public health schools that as of August 2013, the CIA will “make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers” in its operations [Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox]. The agency had enlisted a Pakistani doctor to collect intelligence on Osama bin Laden under the pretext of an immunization effort, leading to a serious backlash against vaccinations in the country.

Nearly 60 countries have expressed support for a French proposal to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court [BBC]. And as the crisis continues, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the death toll in the conflict has risen to over 162,000.

A British citizen has been convicted of a terror offence for arranging to travel to Syria to join a jihadist rebel camp [The Guardian‘s Sandra Laville].

President Obama has authorized up to $50 million in assistance to South Sudan to address the urgent humanitarian needs resulting from months of conflict between government and rebel forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has won the most number of parliamentary seats in last month’s elections, paving the way for Maliki to possibly serve a third term, as violence continues in the Anbar province and across the country [Reuters’ Ahmed Rasheed And Isra’ Al-Rube’ii].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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