News Roundup and Notes: May 29, 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.

President’s West Point address

President Obama discussed his foreign policy vision during his West Point commencement address yesterday. Among other issues, Obama argued in favor of a higher bar for military intervention; a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to build capacity in partner countries; increased efforts to support the moderate opposition in Syria; and greater transparency over the drones program.

The New York Times (Mark Landler), Wall Street Journal (Carol E. Lee) and Washington Post (David Nakamura) cover the President’s address in more detail. Adam Entous [Wall Street Journal] and Edward-Isaac Dovere [Politico] offer five takeaways from Obama’s speech, while the New York Times highlights some of the responses from Obama’s critics to his speech.

The Wall Street Journal editorial covers topics that were not mentioned in Obama’s address, including the Russian reset, the pivot to Asia, and the Middle East peace process.

The Washington Post editorial argues that the West Point address “offered scant comfort” to Obama’s critics, stating that the President’s “binding of U.S. power places [him] at odds with every U.S. president since World War II.”

And according to the New York Times editorial board, the speech “did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.” In particular, the board finds the talk on the need for greater transparency over drones and intelligence gathering “ludicrous,” given that the administration “had to be dragged into even minimal disclosures on both topics.”

Reactions to the West Point speech in foreign media adopted a similarly negative tone. Writing in Haaretz, Chemi Shalev argues that what was missing in the foreign policy speech was “the [Middle East] peace process and the fire in [Obama’s] belly.” And in The Guardian, Carne Ross writes that “much of the nearly hour-long speech was a dull checklist of world problems … most addressed by the routine oversimplifications required on such occasions.”

Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology

In an exclusive interview with NBC’s “Nightly News” (Brian Williams) [full video], Edward Snowden discussed his training as a spy, stating that he viewed himself as a patriot and noting that “[s]ometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law.” He said he would like to return to the U.S., but suggested he would not accept a deal that included a long prison sentence.

However, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Snowden to “man up and come back to the United States” [CBS’ “This Morning”]. Kerry said, “If he cares so much about America and he believes in America, he should trust the American system of justice.”

Meanwhile, Snowden’s adviser Ben Wizner said Snowden could not return to the U.S. under the current Espionage Act charges, and that the “only way around this unjust and … unconstitutional legal regime would be a negotiated settlement” [The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy].

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has told Al-Akhbar that there is “a lot more reporting” to be done on the NSA’s partnerships and surveillance methods in the Middle East, including in the Gulf region.

Jason Leopold [Al Jazeera America] reports that according to newly released FBI files, the agency spied on Nelson Mandela when the leader visited the U.S. in June 1990.

According to cybersecurity investigators, Iran-based hackers have reportedly carried out a three-year cyberespionage campaign against senior U.S. and international officials, in order to collect intelligence on economic sanctions and other issues [Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman].

Guantánamo 

Carol Rosenberg [Miami Herald] covers developments at the pre-trial proceedings in the al Nashiri case, where defense attorneys and prosecutors exchanged arguments over the disclosure of the details of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is reviewing the status of six Guantánamo detainees who may be transferred to Uruguay and said he would make a decision “fairly soon” [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes].

The Periodic Review Board has cleared for release Yemeni Guantánamo detainee Ghaleb Nassar al Bihani, who said he would prefer to live in a third country rather than return to his homeland [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

Afghanistan

A NATO soldier died in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan yesterday, while two bombs killed an Afghan policeman in the city of Kandahar earlier today [Associated Press].

The Nation’s George Zornick reports that Obama may face resistance from Congress over his plans for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. According to a Senate aide, there will be a “strong push” from the Senate to request a vote on any U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the end of this year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has welcomed Obama’s plans for a complete withdrawal by 2016 [AFP]. However, the New York Times (Matthew Rosenberg) and Washington Post (Kevin Sieff) report that Afghans are anxious about the U.S. military drawdown, including over the possibility of Taliban resurgence.

Syria

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed reports that an American citizen carried out a suicide bombing in Syria on behalf of al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front [NBC News’ Robert Windrem and Pete Williams].

The UN’s Al-Qaeda sanctions committee has warned against “new pan-Arab and pan-European networks of extremists,” especially as foreign fighters in Syria return to their home countries [AFP].

A senior Hezbollah commander who was on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list has been killed while fighting in Syria [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman].

CNN (Salma Abdelaziz) covers how extremist rebel group ISIS has embarked upon a “rampage” in eastern Syria.

The New York Times (Rick Gladstone) has obtained a letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressed to the Security Council, which acknowledges that “some activities related to the elimination of the chemical weapons program of the Syrian Arab Republic will continue beyond [the] 30 June [deadline].”

And Al Jazeera (Basma Atassi) reports on the huge turnout for Syria’s presidential vote in Lebanon, where a majority voted in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine traded accusations at a UN Security Council meeting yesterday [CNN’s Susanna Capelouto]. Russia said it could not engage in dialogue until Ukraine halted military action, while Ukraine’s representative accused Russia of “stoking the flames of separatism” in his country.

An insurgent leader in the east has said his fighters are holding four observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and that they will soon be released [Associated Press].

Reuters reports that a Ukrainian military helicopter has been shot down by rebels over Slovyansk, killing 14 people on board, as violent fighting continues in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko has told EU leaders he needs some time before signing a major deal with the bloc, although officials do not see this as evidence of stalling [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman].

Other developments

Defense One (Nikhil Sonnad) provides a map of all the countries that have recognized al-Qaeda affiliates, with Pakistan home to the largest number of such groups.

The Associated Press notes that a drone strike has not been reported in Pakistan since last Christmas, possibly indicating that the CIA drone program in the country may be winding down.

Libyan jets have bombed bases of armed groups in Benghazi, a week after former general Khalifa Haftar launched his campaign against hardline militias in Libya [Al Jazeera]. Meanwhile, the militant group Ansar al-Shariah, which has come under attack, issued a videotaped statement earlier in the week warning the U.S. against intervening in Libya [New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt].

The interim report from the VA’s inspector general confirms recent allegations of delays in access to veterans’ health care and that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout [Veterans Health Administration]” [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]. Following the report’s release, the number of Democrats calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation more the doubled [Politico’s Burgess Everett and Jeremy Herb].

An Army staff sergeant has been charged with sexually assaulting several female soldiers since 2011, including at least one while he was stationed in Afghanistan [Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe].

Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has overwhelmingly won the country’s presidential election according to provisional results, although the low turnout may raise questions about the new leader’s credibility [Reuters’ Yasmine Saleh and Michael Georgy].

The Economist covers how the attempted reconciliation between Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas “is winning more support from foreign governments than many expected,” although Israel remains skeptical.

China has warned against the proposed deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system in South Korea, stating the move would raise tensions in the region [Wall Street Journal’s Te-Ping Chen and Alastair Gale].

An attack on a church in the Central African Republic’s capital city has killed at least 15 people [Al Jazeera].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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