News Roundup and Notes: June 6, 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.

American prisoner exchange

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels yesterday, President Obama continued to defend the prisoner swap, which secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees previously held at Guantánamo Bay [Washington Post’s Zachary A. Goldfarb and Juliet Eilperin]. Obama said:

“We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity and we seized it.  And I make no apologies for that.”

According to congressional and administration officials, the Obama administration told senators that it failed to notify Congress in advance because of the threat to Bergdahl’s life if details were made public and the deal failed [Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian and Deb Riechmann]. While there was no direct threat made by the Taliban, this assessment was based on intelligence reports.

Sources have outlined the conditions on the five Taliban leaders who were transferred from Guantánamo to Qatar, which include a one-year travel ban as well as bans on militant incitement or fundraising that might threaten U.S. interests [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan]. However, some military and intelligence officials have expressed concern about relying on Qatar to watch over the Taliban figures, noting that Qatar’s security services have “magically lost track” of previous detainees [The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake].

The Wall Street Journal (Adam Entous) notes that while the Taliban was unwavering on its demands, the U.S. position was divided during the course of the negotiations, with different agencies issuing different demands, according to U.S. officials.

A senior Taliban commander has told Time (Aryn Baker) that the militant group would “definitely” be inspired by the recent deal to kidnap others.

The New York Times (Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt) reports on the classified military report on the investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, which found that he had previously wandered away from designated areas, but had returned each time.

Two sources, who were Taliban commanders at the time of Bergdahl’s capture, told NBC News (Mushtaq Yusufzai) that the Taliban found Bergdahl acting abnormally and expressing unhappiness with his countrymen.

The New York Times editorial board criticizes the “outrageous demonization of Sergeant Bergdahl in the absence of actual facts” as well as how this issue is being used for political advantage.

Senior administration officials have said that they will move ahead with plans to close Guantánamo, despite the increased opposition to Obama’s plans sparked by the prisoner exchange deal with the Taliban [Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin].

And some Senate Democrats have said that the backlash over Bergdahl’s release should not prevent the administration from negotiating for other American prisoners [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton].

Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology

Mobile phone company Vodafone published its first law enforcement disclosure report today, which reveals the existence of secret wires that allows governments in several countries to listen to or record all conversations on its networks [The Guardian’s Juliette Garside].

A federal judge has affirmed that the government must preserve records of NSA surveillance that may be relevant to ongoing lawsuits challenging the legality of the program, including data gathered under section 702 of the FISA [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) covers the Senate Intelligence Committee’s first public evaluation of the USA Freedom Act, with some senators questioning the adequacy of the privacy protections in the bill, while others defended the NSA’s surveillance program and suggested no changes were necessary.

The government of the Bahamas has directed an American law firm to advise it on “surveillance and privacy matters,” among other things, following allegations that the NSA was monitoring all phone calls on the island nation [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

In an interview earlier this week, DNI James Clapper said “it doesn’t look like [Snowden] took as much” as was first believed, although Clapper maintained that the damage from the leaks is “profound” [Washington Post’s David Ignatius].

Ukraine

With the support of the G-7 leaders, President Obama effectively set a one-month deadline for Russia “to seize this moment” and change course, warning that if Russian President Vladimir Putin “remains on the current course, then we’ve already indicated the kinds of actions that we’re prepared to take” [New York Times’ Peter Baker; Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb and Anne Gearan]. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that “[t]his is not about threats” and that it is “important to make clear that we want dialogue” with Moscow [Wall Street Journal’s Tom Fairless and Anton Troianovski].

At the press conference in Brussels, President Obama expressed continuing concern over France’s defense deal with Russia, stating “it would have been preferable to press the pause button” on the warships deal. Six U.S. senators have also called on French President Francois Hollande to cancel the deal with Russia [RFE/RL].

In Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists attacked a further border post in the country’s east, although the military repelled the attack by air strikes [Reuters]. And Kyiv Post (Christopher J. Miller and Katya Gorchinskaya) reports that the Ukrainian government appears to be moving closer to imposing martial law in the east.

Other developments

The Islamabad High Court has ordered police to bring charges against the CIA’s former station chief in Pakistan for murder and waging war against the country [Newsweek Pakistan]. The order was issued as part of a hearing on a petition filed on behalf of drone strike victims.

North Korea announced it has detained a U.S. citizen and accused him of violating the law by acting “contrary to the purpose of tourism” [CNN’s K.J. Kwon and Jethro Mullen].

CBS News offers details on Hilary Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” scheduled for release next week. Among other issues, it discusses the controversy surrounding the Benghazi attack; strategy in Afghanistan; differences with Obama on arming and training moderate rebels in Syria; and how she “got it wrong” on the 2002 Iraq vote.

Boko Haram militants, disguised as the Nigerian military, killed hundreds of people in three villages in northeast Nigeria yesterday, reports the Associated Press (Haruna Umar).

The New York Times (Thom Shanker and Richard A. Oppel Jr.) reports on the increasing number of suicides among the military’s Special Operations members.

Jim Garamone (American Forces Press Service) covers the Pentagon’s report to Congress on China, which states that the country is believed to be spending around $145 billion on defense, which is greater than the figures cited by Chinese officials.

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has published a policy paper on effective investigation and prosecution of sexual and gender-based crimes.

The Washington Post editorial board explains why “[t]he White House is right to work with the Palestinian unity government,” which “offers the prospect of a continued respite in Hamas-sponsored attacks on Israel” as well as “a new generation of leaders” who could restart the Middle East peace process.

The Treasury Department has announced a settlement with a Netherlands-based company in connection with alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan.

Jeremy Herb [Politico] covers the Senate deal on legislation to reform access to healthcare for veterans and other problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Insurgents in Iraq seized control over several areas in the northern city of Samarra, in an escalation of the struggle between the Iraqi government and militants [Reuters].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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