News Roundup and Notes: October 18, 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.

Department of Defense

President Obama has picked former DoD lawyer, Jeh Johnson to succeed Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security chief, a White House official has confirmed to The Hill (Jeremy Herb and Justin Sink).  According to a senior administration official, Johnson was selected for his “sound judgment and counsel” as the Pentagon’s top lawyer, where he led a legal staff of 10,000. The nomination announcement is set for later this afternoon. Daniel Klaidman broke the story at the Daily Beast yesterday.

In a press briefing yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed the importance of a “balanced long-term spending bill” [Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño]. He said:

If this fiscal uncertainty continues, it will have an impact on our economy, our national security, and America’s standing in the world. And if the sequester level continues, there will also be consequences.

DOD Comptroller Robert F. Hale said that the furloughs of civilian employees as a result of the government shutdown cost the department at least $600 million in productivity, while other costs had yet to be calculated [American Forces Press Service’s Claudette Roulo].

Surveillance

In an interview with New York Times’ James Risen, Edward Snowden stated, “[t]here’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.” He claimed that the NSA knew he had not cooperated with Russia or China. He also said that he did not take any files to Russia as “it wouldn’t serve the public interest.”

Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris notes that President Obama’s likely pick for the next NSA director, Vice Admiral Michael S. Rogers has “all of the intelligence and military credentials for the position,” but writes that he has a less demonstrable track record of interacting with members of Congress or the Homeland Security Department.

A senior official has told NPR that the Justice Department has identified a criminal case in which it intends to tell defense lawyers that secret intercepts were used to help build the prosecution case (Carrie Johnson). An issue still being debated in the department is what type of disclosure prosecuting lawyers are required to make when cases are “derived from” evidence gathered under section 702 of the FAA.

In a response to Snowden’s disclosures earlier this year, the EU is planning to pass new data protection standards that will curb the ability of U.S. companies and social media providers to transfer European data to third countries [The Guardian’s Ian Traynor]. The regulations will also authorize fines for non-compliance running into billions.

At an inquiry prompted by Snowden’s leaks at the European Parliament earlier in the week, international experts claimed that mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and GCHQ breached international law [Slate’s Ryan Gallagher].

In the U.K., The Guardian editorial questions whether some politicians “understand the meaning of a press free to report on matters of high public importance.” The editorial notes that unlike in the U.K., there are “practically no voices in Congress calling for the Washington Post or New York Times to be investigated.”

Al-Shabaab

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Colum Lynch) reports that the UN recently uncovered a “credible” terrorist plot by the Somali organization, al-Shabaab against the UN compound in Mogadishu, according to senior UN officials. The report, which was submitted to the Security Council, stated that the “risk of asymmetric attacks has significantly curtailed the mobility of UN staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical UN programs in support of [Somalia’s] Federal government.” It was in response to this threat that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for additional troops in Somalia earlier this week.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Uganda’s Kampala has issued a warning to Americans about a possible Westgate mall-style attack occurring in the city [CNN].

Iran

Following the first round of negotiations, a senior administration official has said that the White House is considering a proposal that would offer Iran access to billions of dollars in frozen funds if Iran takes specific steps to curb its nuclear program [New York Times’ Mark Landler]. The plan would involve freeing up Iran’s frozen overseas assets in installments, and according to the official, avoid the political and diplomatic risks of repealing the sanctions regime altogether.

Iran’s state-run media, IRNA has quoted the Iranian government officials as expressing optimism that a deal with the West can be reached [CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark and Jim Sciutto]. IRNA reported Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as stating that the P5+1 “has accepted the overall framework of Tehran’s new proposal to settle differences but said we should wait for their practical measures.”

And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif cautions against believing Iranian sources claiming to have details about the nuclear deal:

However, skepticism over a possible nuclear deal continues in Tehran and Washington [Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Jason Rezaian]. A few lawmakers in both countries have opposed the possibility of any compromise, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who has called for greater economic penalties against Iran.

In the media, The Economist argues that a “deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium with strict limits would be better than no deal at all” as it “would make the country’s long-suffering people a bit happier and the world, including Israel, a bit safer.” The Washington Post editorial board notes that it is “worth exploring a settlement that permits a token amount of enrichment while locking down the program to minimize the chance of an undetected breakout.” However, this would require “far greater concessions than the [Iranian] regime appears to be contemplating.”

Syria

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said last night that the Geneva II conference is scheduled to take place at the end of November [Al Jazeera America’s Michael Pizzi]. But within hours, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters, “[we] shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves” and that it was for the UN to set and announce the dates.

The Guardian (Ian Black) notes that the U.S., U.K. and the Arab Gulf states are considering incentives to ensure that credible representatives from the deeply divided opposition attend the peace talks.

The Washington Post (Loveday Morris) reports that a senior Syrian intelligence officer, Gen. Jameh Jameh was killed by rebel forces in Syria’s eastern province as rebels made new gains in the region.

The New York Times’ Tim Arango writes that Turkey “finds itself in the same position as many of the [Syrian] rebels’ early backers, including the United States — concerned that Islamist radicals have come to dominate the ranks of the Syrian opposition.” For the first time since the civil war started, Turkey shelled rebel positions earlier this week. This change in position is “yet another positive turn for Mr. Assad, who has found his position increasingly stable, if not secure.”

AFP reports that the Syrian government announced yesterday that it has released to the UN a Canadian employee who went missing eight months ago in the Golan Heights.

Amnesty International has called upon the Egyptian authorities to end their practice of “detaining and forcibly returning hundreds of refugees who have fled the armed conflict in Syria.”

The BBC has a useful guide to the most prominent armed and political opposition groups in Syria.

Turkey

Turkey denied claims that it had exposed an Israeli spy ring to the Iranian regime as was reported by David Ignatius in the Washington Post [Al Jazeera].Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed that the allegations were “without any foundation.” Another Turkish official responded that “stories like these are part of a campaign.”

Other developments

The Justice Department has brought new charges against the four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors over the 2007 shooting in Baghdad that killed Iraqi civilians, including women and children [AP].

Staffers at the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations have told Fox News that a preliminary conclusion has been reached on the investigation into the Benghazi attack (James Rosen). The investigators have determined that no military remedy was feasible on the night, but this was because “U.S. military assets were poorly postured amid the turmoil of that period,” as Fox News reports.

A U.S. Marine Corps panel has recommended that an officer be forcibly discharged for failing to supervise his officers who posed for a video while urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan [AP].

An interim report of UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson investigates the practice of drone strikes and targeting killing. ICYMI, yesterday, Just Security’s Sarah Knuckey provides a brief, descriptive outline of the report.

The Washington Post (Kevin Sieff) covers the difficulty for Afghani soldiers waging war, with the “biggest threat” being “an inability to repair or replace vital equipment once it is broken.” The U.S. was responsible for fixing equipment for years, but now that it is transferring responsibility to Afghanistan, the Afghani troops “don’t have enough trained professionals to take care of this equipment.”

The UN General Assembly has elected Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia to serve as non-permanent members on the Security Council for two-year terms beginning on 1 January 2014 [UN News Centre]. Hayes Brown covers the “mixed record” of the new members on security issues [Think Progress].

But in a statement from its Foreign Ministry this morning, Saudi Arabia turned down its seat claiming that it “has no other option …until [the Security Council] is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving the world’s peace and security” [AFP].

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour yesterday that Egypt will “find other sources” of support if its national security needs are not met.

Reuters (Ulf Laessing and Suleiman Al-Khalidi) covers the growing militia rivalries in Libya that has “edged Libya close to a new war that threatens the democratic gains of the NATO-backed revolt.”

A top Iraqi official said yesterday that Baghdad had begun receiving arms from Russia under a historic $4.3-billion deal [AFP]. And in a series of blasts yesterday, at least 61 people were killed in Iraq [Washington Post’s Adam Schreck].

AFP reports that a suicide bombed in south Yemen killed 12 soldiers in an attack on a military command center earlier this morning.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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