News Roundup and Notes: May 21, 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.

Drones

The Department of Justice has decided not to appeal a court order requiring the government to disclose a memo detailing the legal justification for drone strikes targeting a U.S. citizen suspected of terrorism overseas [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]. The federal appeals court order was in response to FOIA suits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. The administration’s decision comes on the eve of a Senate vote on President Obama’s judicial nominee, David J. Barron, who authored the memo justifying the strike that killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that he has enough votes to confirm Barron, adding that members of the Senate Democratic Caucus were “satisfied” with the administration’s briefing last week [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton].

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has said that drone strikes are justified, while acknowledging that they may result in civilian deaths [Stuff]. Key also confirmed that New Zealand shared intelligence with the U.S., but that it did not provide information that led to the targeting of the New Zealand citizen in Yemen last November.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Jacob Wood and Ken Harbaugh explore the limits of drone warfare, and argue that the U.S. “will soon face the reality that future conflicts cannot be won by joystick alone.”

Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology

Leaders of both parties in the House have revised the NSA reform bill at the request of the Obama administration [New York Times’ Charlie Savage]. Privacy advocates have withdrawn their support for the bill, arguing that the amended version, unveiled yesterday, weakens the measures designed to protect against mass surveillance. The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) and Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) also provide details.

Writing in The Guardian, the founder of the encrypted email start-up Lavabit, Ladar Levison reveals how surveillance laws and the U.S. legal system forced him to shut down his company.

The government of the Bahamas has sought an explanation from the U.S. over reports that the NSA is collecting and recording every cell phone conversation in the country [The Nassau Guardian’s Travis Cartwright-Carroll].

David E. Sanger [New York Times] notes how every example of NSA spying on foreign corporations “is becoming Exhibit A in China’s argument that by indicting five members of the People’s Liberation Army, the Obama administration is giving new meaning to capitalistic hypocrisy.” And Newsweek’s Jeff Stein considers whether China can be “shamed” into halting its commercial espionage. A former U.S. intelligence cyber official told Newsweek that the five members targeted are “not the A-team,” which is “deeply hidden and protected by the state.”

Ukraine

The Russian Defense Ministry announced today that its troops in three provinces bordering Ukraine had spent 24 hours dismantling their camps and packing, and were now “moving toward train stations and airfields” [Reuters].

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has refused to guarantee that Moscow will stay out of eastern Ukraine, arguing that Russia has “never taken up any obligations in that respect” [Moscow Times’ Anna Dolgov].

Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov has appealed to his workers in the separatist-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions to hold daily demonstrations against the unrest and violence, which may mark “a decisive turn … in support of a united Ukraine and its political leaders in Kyiv” [Kyiv Post’s Ivan Verstyuk and Oksana Grytsenko].

Speaking in Bucharest, Vice President Joe Biden assured Romania that it can “count on [the U.S.]” in the wake of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, and emphasized that “NATO nations never stand alone.”

The New York Times editorial board notes that while “[a] free and fair election on Sunday is the first step toward stability,” the next step must be “a new president truly willing to break with the corruptions of the past.”

The U.S. has sanctioned 12 Russians for human rights abuses, but the move has not been linked by the Treasury Department to the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine [Reuters].

Syria

Russia has said it will veto the UN resolution, circulated by France, to refer the civil war in Syria to the International Criminal Court [Reuters].

Senior U.S. intelligence officials have told The Daily Beast (Eli Lake) that between six and twelve Americans who joined the fight in Syria have now returned to the U.S., but acknowledged that they only know where “some” fighters are. According to the latest intelligence estimates, more than 100 U.S. citizens have travelled to Syria to fight alongside extremist rebels.

Abu Assad, the commander of Aleppo’s tunnel forces and the man responsible for the deadly blasts that have killed Syrian troops, has revealed his identity to The Guardian (Martin Chulov).

The New York Times’ Ben Hubbard covers how Lebanon-based Hezbollah’s success in helping the Syrian regime defeat rebels along border towns has attracted a new wave of young fighters to join the group. However, while the group has demonstrated its military strength, the fighting in Syria has also diluted resources that were once used exclusively to counter Israel.

Other developments

CNN (Barbara Starr) has learned that the U.S. intelligence community is concerned about a series of al-Qaeda-affiliated threats against targets in the U.S. as well as American and Western targets in Europe. A senior official said that none of the threats had been corroborated.

FBI Director James B. Comey has said that his agency may have to amend its no-tolerance policy on hiring those who smoke marijuana, so that the FBI is able to “hire a great work force” that can keep pace with cyber criminals [Wall Street Journal’s  Charles Levinson].

The New York Times (Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman) details the White House’s efforts to contain the growing political storm over allegations of misconduct at veterans’ hospitals. The investigation has now expanded to 26 Veterans Affairs facilities [CNN’s Scott Bronstein and Tom Cohen].

The planned new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security is more than $1.5 billion over budget, while completion has been pushed back by 11 years to 2026, according to planning documents and federal officials [Washington Post’s Jerry Markon].

The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court will deliver its judgment on the admissibility of the case against Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi today.

Pakistani fighter jets have targeted militant bases in the country’s North Waziristan tribal region early this morning, killing at least 50 suspected militants, with more fatalities expected from the strikes [Dawn’s Zahir Shah Sherazi].

Iranian armed forces staged air defense drills in the Persian Gulf to prepare the country against possible hostile drone flights [Fars News Agency].

Libya’s election commission has scheduled elections for next month, as the interim government attempts to resolve the escalating crisis in the country [Associated Press]. Meanwhile, the former general who is leading the uprising said he would not negotiate with his opponents [Washington Post’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous].

An Egyptian court has sentenced ousted president Hosni Mubarak to three years in prison on corruption charges [Reuters‘ Maggie Fick].

Al Jazeera reports on the two car bombs in Nigeria’s central city of Jos yesterday, which killed at least 118 people. No group claimed immediate responsibility for the attacks.

The Associated Press covers how Southeast Asian countries have refrained from any collective action against China as it moves ahead with its territorial claims over disputed seas, “seen as a possible flashpoint for the world’s next major conflict.”

The U.S. and other countries have pledged more than $600m in humanitarian aid to South Sudan at a conference in Norway [BBC], while Uganda’s military leader has called for an urgent deployment of regional troops to help enforce the failed cease-fire in South Sudan [Wall Street Journal’s Nicholas Bariyo].

If you want to receive your news directly to your inbox, sign up here for the Just Security Early Edition. For the latest information from Just Security, follow us on Twitter (@just_security) and join the conversation on Facebook. To submit news articles and notes for inclusion in our daily post, please email us at news@justsecurity.org. Don’t forget to visit The Pipeline for a preview of upcoming events and blog posts on U.S. national security. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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