News Roundup and Notes: October 17, 2013

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.

End of government shutdown

Following 16 days of partial government shutdown, President Obama announced in a press briefing last night:

Tonight, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come together around an agreement that will reopen our government and remove the threat of default from our economy.

All federal government employees, including around 4,000 Defense Department employees, will return to work today [American Forces Press Service’s Jim Garamone].

The Washington Post’s Eric Yoder covers what the end of the government shutdown means for federal employees, including when employees are likely to receive their back pay.

NSA

In the latest revelations, the Washington Post (Greg Miller et al.) reports on the NSA’s extensive involvement in the CIA’s targeted killing program. Based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, the NSA has conducted, according to the Post, “a surveillance blanket” in parts of northwest Pakistan. The documents also confirm that NSA intelligence led to the drone strike last year that killed al-Qaeda operative, Hassan Ghul. Other documents reveal that the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations division extends beyond Pakistan.

The report also states that there is no reference to “the NSA’s metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly every person in the United States. To the contrary, the records indicate that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations.”

The Washington Post report states that it is withholding many details about the missions, “at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.” An NSA spokesperson stated yesterday that the NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets.”

Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that the Department of Justice is fighting the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s petition asking the Supreme Court for a mandamus review of the legality of the NSA’s collection of phone call records. The Department of Justice brief argues that mandamus relief is unwarranted.

NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander will be stepping down next spring, reports The Hill’s Brendan Sasso. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, the decision has “nothing to do” with the leaks of the department’s surveillance program.

Brian Fung questions whether President Obama will appoint two separate officials to head the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, both of which are currently led by Keith Alexander [Washington Post’s The Switch]. Fung argues that splitting the role is unlikely “to act as a significant check” or “add much additional transparency,” given that there is “so much inertia built into the rest of the system.”

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron accused The Guardian yesterday of damaging national security by publishing materials leaked by Edward Snowden [New York Times’ Alan Cowell]. The Guardian (Nick Hopkins et al.) reports that the U.K. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee is launching an investigation into the extent and scale of mass surveillance by the U.K.’s spy agencies.

Iran

Following the close of the first two-day Geneva negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif issued a joint statement reporting on the “substantive and forward looking negotiations.” According to the statement, the next meeting will convene on November 7 and 8, and “E3+3 and Iranian nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts will convene before the next meeting to address differences and to develop practical steps.”

Javad Zarif reported on the negotiations through his Twitter account:

And in a Facebook post, Zarif claimed that the secrecy of the negotiations was a good sign [Al Jazeera]:

Normally, the less negotiators leak news, the more it shows the seriousness of the negotiations and the possibility of reaching an agreement.

In a special briefing, a senior U.S. administration official stated yesterday:

Over the past two days, we’ve had serious and substantive discussions with our P5 counterparts and with Iran. We had detailed technical discussions at a level we have not had before.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman also told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Iranian delegation “came prepared for detailed, substantive discussion with a candor that I certainly have not heard in the two years I’ve been meeting with Iranians.”

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed “substantive discussions,” stating that “Iran will need to take the necessary first steps on its programme and we are ready to take proportionate steps in return” [BBC]. Russia had a more cautious response. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying, there “is no reason to break into applause; things could have worked out better” [BBC].

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon and Laurence Norman), New York Times (Michael Gordon) and Washington Post (Joby Warrick) have more on the progress made at the Geneva negotiations.

The Wall Street Journal’s Charles Levinson covers Israel’s continuing skepticism, with Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz stating yesterday that “[we] view the nuclear talks in Geneva with hope and with concern.”

The media provides further analysis. The Financial Times’ James Blitz notes the “big change at the Iran talks” and that “[for] the first time, the US and the west have started to explore what the ‘end state’ of the Iranian programme should be.” The Guardian editorial writes that there are “reasons to be cheerful” following the negotiations, although the West will have to “show flexibility as well.” The editorial notes that “[if] the logjam is in Congress, the EU can make up the slack, particularly on banking restrictions.”

Trita Parsi analyzes the critical shift from the Iranian perspective, but writes that “this is not yet a done deal” [Al Jazeera America].  Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post warns that Iran is only looking for relief from the harsh economic sanctions. And the New York Times (Rick Gladstone) has a Q&A on Iran’s nuclear program and the negotiations.

In other related news, the U.K. Foreign Office reported yesterday that the U.K. and Iran will “soon” be appointing their interim envoys [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman].

The Financial Times (Najmeh Bozorgmehr) reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is “seeking to counter the commercial reach of the Revolutionary Guards” and “carve out space for private companies that have been suffocated by its operations.”

And David Ignatius in the Washington Post covers the “poisonous” Turkish-Israeli relationship. He discloses that early last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan allegedly disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting with Israel’s Mossad officers in Turkey.

Syria

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission team “has now conducted verification activities at a total of 11 sites that are identified in Syria’s disclosure.” This includes “critical equipment destruction at six sites as well as some Category 3 weapons destruction.”

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the appointment of Sigrid Kaag as Special Coordinator of the joint OPCW-UN mission responsible for overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles and production facilities [UN News Centre].

The New York Times (Anne Barnard) reports that a small-scale effort to evacuate civilians from rebel-held town, Moadhamiya under a temporary cease-fire yesterday failed due to shelling.

A monitoring group has stated that at least 41 fighters were killed in north-eastern Syria yesterday in a battle between Kurds and the jihadists and Islamist rebels [AFP].

Reuters’ Nick Tattersall covers Turkey’s growing security threat owing to the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria’s north. With Islamist rebel groups gaining a stronger foothold in the area, Turkey is forced to question its “wholesale support” for anti-Assad forces.

France has agreed to take in 500 Syrian refugees following requests from the UN [Al Jazeera America’s Massoud Hayoun].

Egypt

In an interview with state-owned daily Al-Ahram, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy stated, “[we] are right now in a delicate phase reflecting turmoil in the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship and whoever says otherwise is not speaking honestly” [AFP].

Egypt’s interim President, Adly Mansour is reviewing a proposed protest law approved by the Cabinet that creates tight restrictions on protests [CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz]. The proposed law has been criticized by rights groups and political factions in Egypt.

Al Jazeera covers how the current regime has been cracking down on “terrorist” media, with growing censorship and detention of journalists since July.

Dina Khayat argues in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. decision to withdraw aid from Egypt “in the name of democracy and inclusiveness is a pity,” given the longstanding mutual strategic interests between the two countries, including on counter-terrorism.

Other developments

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is set to meet with President Obama at the White House on November 1 as the U.S. withdraws from its post-war involvement in Iraq [Politico’s Jennifer Epstein].

The Economist writes that next year’s elections in Afghanistan will see enough candidates “with tainted records to cast a dark shadow over the entire field,” but argues that the West “has itself to blame” for a political system that has been “subverted from the outset” since 2001.

The head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Bert Koenders has told the UN Security Council that the mission “lacks critical enablers – such as helicopters – to facilitate rapid deployment and access to remote areas to ensure the protection of civilians” and has called for accelerated “troop generation” [UN News Centre].

A parliamentary committee in the U.K. has accused the government of not taking a more “robust stand in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka” [The Guardian’s Jason Burke]. The report claims that Sri Lanka’s bid to host the biannual summit of the Commonwealth should have been made conditional on human rights improvement.

Violence in Iraq continues as a suicide truck bomber kills at least 15 this morning in northern Iraq [Reuters].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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