News Roundup and Notes: October 28, 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.

NSA surveillance

German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published details on Saturday suggesting that the NSA may have been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone since 2002, even before she was elected as leader, and continued to do so at least until a few weeks before President Obama’s visit to Berlin in June earlier this year. According to secret documents from 2010 leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA’s spying unit – the Special Collection Service – was operating out of the U.S. embassy in Berlin as well as around 80 other embassies and consulates around the world, including 19 in Europe. The New York Times (Alison Smale et al.) and Washington Post (Michael Birnbaum) have more on this story.

A subsequent report from German newspaper Bild am Sonntag alleged that Obama was aware of NSA surveillance of Merkel’s phone since at least 2010, and allowed it to continue [Deutsche Welle]. Allegedly, NSA Director Keith Alexander personally briefed Obama about the NSA operation. This contradicted the report from German newspaper Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, which claimed that Obama had told Merkel during a phone conversation last Wednesday that he had not known of the bugging.

In an unusual intervention, the NSA issued a statement responding to the story [The Guardian’s Paul Lewis and Philip Oltermann]:

General Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous) reports that according to U.S. officials, President Obama was unaware of NSA surveillance of world leaders’ communications for nearly five years. The White House first learned of the operations following an internal review revealed this summer. It was only after this that the NSA began to end its monitoring programs, including the one targeting Merkel. According to the report, the President was “briefed on broader intelligence-collection ‘priorities,’ but that those below him make decisions about specific intelligence targets.”

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was quoted as telling German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that “if the Americans intercepted cellphones in Germany, they broke German law on German soil” [AP]. He demanded “complete information on all accusations.”

An NBC News report on Friday suggested that the White House may be open to a no-spy agreement with Germany and other allies, which the U.S. already has with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “We are already in diplomatic and intelligence channels talking to the Germans, French, countries around the world — Brazil and Mexico, as well…I think we’ll have a series of bilateral discussions with these countries and look at multilateral discussions as well.” The Hill (Justin Sink) reports that German intelligence officials are set to travel to Washington this week to demand explanations about the NSA spying allegations.

In the latest revelations this morning, Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo reported that the NSA secretly monitored 60 million phone calls in one month in Spain [BBC]. According to a document from Edward Snowden, the NSA collected numbers and locations, but not the phone call content.  On Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had stated his intention to summon the US ambassador to Madrid to explain reports of American spying on the country [AFP].

In the U.S., House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich) told CNN on Sunday, “This whole notion that we’re going…after each other on what is really legitimate protection of nation-state interests is disingenuous” [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]. And Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) stated to NBC that President Obama “should stop apologizing, stop being defensive” and that “the NSA has saved thousands of lives not just in the United States but in France, Germany and throughout Europe” [Politico’s Hadas Gold]. Meanwhile, Politico’s Josh Gerstein covers how the NSA disclosures are putting the U.S. on “defense.”

The Washington Post’s Catherine Ho reports on how tech companies are turning to lobbyists following NSA spying revelations. According to a report of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the U.S. cloud computing industry could lose up $35 billion if foreign customers decide it is too risky to store data with U.S. companies.

In the U.K., leaked memos reveal that the spy agency, GCHQ feared that “damaging public debate” would lead to legal challenges against its mass surveillance program [The Guardian’s James Ball]. The report details the “agency’s long fight against making intercept evidence admissible as evidence in criminal trials,” motivated by a desire to minimize the potential for legal challenges, rather than national security concerns.

Responding to the latest developments, The Economist explains why “the uproar in Europe seems softer than might have been predicted,” including the likely knowledge that all countries are engaged in foreign spying. Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that the greatest impact of the Snowden leaks is that “they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it” [Foreign Affairs].

CNN’s Frida Ghitis warns that the “U.S. needs to get spying under control” and notes that the fact that “everyone does it…does not make it right.” And the Financial Times’ Ivo Daalder writes, “Politicians must weigh the political cost of tapping allies’ phones,” arguing that “there is reason to doubt the benefits.”

Syria

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported yesterday that the Syrian regime has submitted “its formal initial declaration covering its chemical weapons programme… in line with the deadline.” No details of Syria’s program were released. The New York Times (Nick Cumming-Bruce And Michael R. Gordon) reports on the update.

Norway’s foreign minister announced on Friday that his country had to turn down a U.S. request to receive the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction, as it did not have the required capabilities to complete the task within the deadline [AP].

Meanwhile, a coalition of 19 Syrian rebel groups rejected participation in the Geneva II peace talks in a video statement yesterday [CNN’s Steve Almasy and Nick Paton Walsh]:

We consider participation in Geneva II and negotiating with the regime is trading the blood of martyrs and treason, and those will be held accountable in our courts.

The Syrian National Coalition has delayed its decision on participation in the peace talks by a week, “indicating difficulty within the ranks on finding consensus.”

The UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has arrived in Damascus today for talks with Syrian government officials, amid reports of violence in and around the capital [Al Jazeera]. He is expected to build support for the peace talks scheduled for next month.

The Washington Post (Loveday Morris) reports on how the rise of al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the civil war has served as a popularity boost for, Jabhat al-Nusra, which used to have the reputation of being the most radical component within the opposition forces. The rise of ISIS has allowed the group to “present itself as a more mainstream — and more Syrian — force.”

And in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl argues that Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East is “based on fantasy.” He notes that “virtually no one outside the State Department…takes seriously” the possibility of resolution on the Syrian crisis or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Benghazi

CBS News’ 60 Minutes (Lara Logan) reports on last year’s Benghazi attack. A security officer, and eyewitness, details the “well-executed attack,” first on the U.S. Special Mission Compound and then on a secret CIA annex, and discusses the inadequate security prior to the attack.

[ICYMI, see Just Security’s Andy Wright’s post earlier this month on congressional oversight of the Benghazi attack and the death of “expeditionary diplomacy.”]

Afghanistan

Senior NATO officials have said that they are planning a reduced mission as part of the postwar presence in Afghanistan, amidst concerns that the U.S. Congress or European parliaments might cancel their financial commitments, currently amounting to more than $4 billion a year [New York Times’ Thom Shanker].

The Wall Street Journal (Michael Phillips) covers how U.S. troops in Afghanistan do not want to withdraw from the country “without the win” and before “fend[ing] off a resurgent Taliban.” And the Washington Post (Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Higham) reports that following withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. will lose access and control over U.S.-funded reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars. The U.S. will have to rely instead on monitoring by private contractors.

On the ground, at least 17 were killed by a roadside mine in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, while a bomb in Kabul this morning killed at least one civilian and injured three military personnel [New York Times’ Azam Ahmed].

Iran

The Wall Street Journal (Benoît Faucon and Laurence Norman) reports that the EU is adopting a new approach to bolster Iran sanctions in order to prevent legal challenges against the program, according to EU officials. This follows the recent defeats at the European Court of Justice last month in relation to companies with Iranian ties that were seeking to overturn sanctions.

The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian covers how Iran’s oil industry is “trying for a comeback.” Although sanctions have hampered the industry, signs suggest that President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts at attracting old clients “may be boosting the country’s most essential economic lifeline.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Marwan Bishara explains why Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, fear a “U.S.-Iran détente.” Among other reasons, they fear that U.S.-Iran negotiations are “likely to leave Israel as the one nuclear power in the region, while allowing its occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.”

Other developments

Defense attorneys for accused 9/11 conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, asked President Obama last week for CIA records of their detention, claiming that they have been classified not to protect national security, but because of “fear of public embarrassment and the desire to conceal war crimes” [Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin]. The Hill (Carlo Muñoz) reports that the military trial is likely to be postponed until early 2015 “due to legal wrangling over classified information on the CIA’s interrogation program.”

The largest defense firms are boosting their profits despite the spending cuts – “by laying off workers, cutting facilities, buying back stock and taking advantage of prior-year contracts” – which makes the case for ending the sequester a “tougher sell,” reports The Hill’s Jeremy Herb.

The AP reports that Columbia’s main rebel group have released a former U.S. Army private captured in June after he disregarded local officials’ warnings and entered into rebel-held territory.

Following a 1.5 year boycott, Israel will renew its cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council this week as part of the Council’s Universal Periodic Review [Haaretz’s Barak Ravid]. Israel also agreed to release 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a U.S.-brokered deal [AP’s Aron Heller]. And according to a military spokesperson, Palestinians in Gaza fired two rockets at a southern Israeli city earlier this morning, but Israel intercepted the strikes [Reuters’ Dan Williams].

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that there “are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law,” but that any threats from China would be countered by Japan.

A series of car bombs in Baghdad yesterday killed dozens of people, highlighting the “deepening security crisis as an al-Qaeda affiliate wages a relentless campaign of attacks” in Iraq [Washington Post’s Ben Van Heuvelen].

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned “in the strongest terms” the killing of a UN peacekeeper by M23 rebels in DRC, and pledged the UN’s ongoing commitment to take “all necessary actions” to protect civilians [UN News Centre].

If you want to receive your news directly to your inbox, sign up here for the Just Security Early Edition. For the latest information from Just Security, follow us on Twitter (@just_security) and join the conversation on Facebook.  To submit news articles and notes for inclusion in our daily post, please email us at news@justsecurity.org.  Don’t forget to visit The Pipeline for a preview of upcoming events and blog posts on U.S. national security. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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