News Roundup and Notes: December 19, 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. 

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

President Obama will use “broad executive power” to “defy Congress” and lift a number of restrictions against Cuba, including travel, commerce and financial activities, report Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael R. Gordon. [New York Times]

The Obama administration’s move to normalize relations “hit a familiar roadblock” in the response by the GOP, Lauren French explores the steps which a Republican-controlled Congress could take next year to limit Obama’s plan. [Politico]

The White House made an “unusual” move in disclosing the existence of key intelligence agent, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, and giving details of specific cases he worked on. [Wall Street Journal’s Felicia Schwartz] Sarraff paid a “heavy cold war price,” with some of those involved in the “spy games” between the two countries now asking whether it was worth it, write Mark Mazzetti et al. [New York Times]

Secret diplomacy has been used by President Obama to secure three major accords, most recently with Cuba; Mark Landler provides details of the approach. [New York Times]

The Cuban economic embargo is “anachronistic;” The Economist expresses agreement with President Obama “in saying that after half a century of failure in trying to isolate Cuba, it is worth trying to promote change there through engagement.” The Economist’s view on the beginning of the U.S. embargo in 1960 can be read here.

IRAQ AND SYRIA

Iraqi Kurdish forces have recaptured a large swath of land from the Islamic State in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq with the help of increased U.S. airstrikes in recent days. [New York Times’ Tim Arango]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and partner nations conducted six airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Dec. 18. Separately, the U.S. and partner nations carried out five strikes in Iraq. [Central Command]

Three military leaders of the Islamic State groups were killed by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in recent weeks, Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Wall Street Journal in an interview, reports Julian E. Barnes. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved the deployment of several hundred U.S. troops to Iraq in a training capacity. [AP] There are now almost 350 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province though they are not fighting alongside Iraqis or calling in airstrikes from the front lines. [Stars and Stripes’ Jon Harper]

The UN is seeking $8.4 billion to help the 18 million victims of the Syrian conflict in 2015; the request includes development aid for neighboring countries overwhelmed by the flow of refugees. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

An “extraordinary effort” was made to secure the release of executed U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, involving a “radical” New York lawyer, the U.S. government and a revered jihadi scholar, report Shiv Malik et al. for the Guardian.

Iraq is taking steps to “address the discontents that give rise to terrorism,” as military action alone is not sufficient to defeat the Islamic State. For “lasting victory” the country needs “governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction,” writes Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. [Wall Street Journal]

SONY AND NORTH KOREA

The Obama administration is struggling to find an appropriate response to North Korea’s apparent hacking of Sony Pictures, as entertainment companies are not listed in a presidential directive concerned with protecting “critical infrastructure” in the U.S., according to people close to the situation. [Wall Street Journal’s Danny Yadron et al.]

North Korea has “proven a dead end for Obama’s philosophy of engaging enemies” as no serious dialogue has been achieved during his presidency, reports Michael Crowley. [Politico]

Sony’s decision to pull “The Interview” from theaters shows it is a “bona fide security issue” rather than just a question of free speech and intellectual property, writes Todd S. Purdum. [Politico]

It was reportedly a Sony executive who encouraged the use of the name Kim Jong Un in “The Interview” rather than using a fictitious one, according to leaked emails “unearthed” by The Daily Beast, reports William Boot.

The media weighs in. The New York Times editorial board argues that the decision to pull “The Interview” “will establish a dangerous precedent that could further embolden rogue regimes and criminals.” The Washington Post editorial board considers that the “most serious threat is to free speech,” and that both “the cyberattack and the coercion … cannot go unanswered.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board offers a potential response to “make sure that the movie gets the giant audience that Kim fears” – make it free.

PAKISTAN SCHOOL ATTACK

The head of the Pakistani military signed death warrants for six “hard-core terrorists” yesterday. The move to expedite the execution of convicted terrorists comes just two days after the Peshawar massacre and the prime minister’s rescission of the moratorium on the death penalty. [Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Annie Gowen]

Pakistani forces killed 59 militants in the Khyber tribal region close to the Afghan border yesterday, the military said today. [AP]

American attempts to persuade Pakistan’s military to tackle militancy “are widely viewed as having failed,” despite billions in military aid, David Rohde reports. [Reuters]

The assassination of senior Taliban leaders has had a minimal impact on the organization due to the group’s ability to replace lost leaders, according to a 2009 CIA report released yesterday for the first time by Wikileaks. [BBC]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A female CIA employee was a key architect of the agency’s defense of its “enhanced interrogation” program for suspected terrorists. The unnamed senior officer retains a high position at the CIA, reports Matthew Cole. [NBC News] The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer looks further into the “unidentified queen of torture.” Several reporters identified the woman as Alfreda Bikowsky in postings on Twitter.

The U.S. will not support the current resolution advanced by the Palestinians concerning a peace deal with Israel; State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. would not back a resolution that sets a specific deadline for withdrawal from occupied territories. [Al Jazeera]

Boko Haram militants have killed at least 33 people and kidnapped about 200 from a rural village in the northeastern state of Borno, Nigeria. [BBC]

CIA Director John Brennan has praised the selection of Avril Haines as the new deputy national security advisor, the first woman to serve in the role. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

The State Department has designated former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist due to his links with al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Five Ukrainian solders have been killed in attacks by pro-Russian separatists over 24 hours, despite the September ceasefire. [Reuters]

Women may be allowed join the British infantry by 2016 for the first time, as an Army review of the ban on women in combat roles concluded the change would not have an “adverse effect” on troop cohesion. [BBC]

The Washington Post avoids the use of the word “torture” in its reporting, Jim Naureckas explains the paper’s policy. [FAIR]

An independent panel inquiry of the Secret Service concluded the agency is “stretched too thin” and the fence around the White House need to be upgraded, in a report released yesterday. [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt]

The U.S. and Japan have pushed back a review of their security-cooperation guidelines, citing the timing of Japan’s legislative process. [Wall Street Journal’s Toko Sekiguchi]

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security