News Roundup and Notes: October 29, 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

The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian and Janet Stobart) reported last night that according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, the White House and State Department signed off on surveillance targeting world leaders’ phone calls. According to one official:

[The] National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.

Intelligence officials disputed claims in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal article that the White House learned of the program only this summer, and expressed anger at what amounts to “the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”

Earlier in the day, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued the following statement, expressing opposition to the latest spying revelations:

It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary… it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed.

Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.

Feinstein also stated, “The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support” and confirmed that the Intelligence Committee will “initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.” The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) has more on this development.

A senior administration official told Politico (Josh Gerstein) that Feinstein’s claim that all surveillance targeting allies would cease was “not accurate.” The official stated:

While we have made some individual changes…we have not made across the board changes in policy like, for example, terminating intelligence collection that might be aimed at all allies.

The New York Times (Mark Landler and David E. Sanger) reports that according to senior administration officials, the administration reserves the right to collect intelligence in allied countries related to terrorism, criminal activity and unconventional weapons.

Amidst growing criticism of global spying, White House press secretary Jay Carney defended the NSA program yesterday, stating that the NSA work “saves lives” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. Carney claimed that:

These capabilities are part of the reason we’ve been able to foil numerous terrorist plots and adapt to a post-9/11 security environment.

He added that the NSA, including Director Gen. Keith Alexander, had the President’s “full confidence.” However, Carney declined to confirm whether President Obama became aware of the NSA program this summer [Politico’s Jennifer Epstein].

In a television interview with Fusion, Obama called for a review of the NSA operations, “to make sure that what they’re able to do doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing” [Al Jazeera].

Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council, also said that the review ordered by Obama would examine “whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state, how we coordinate with our closest allies and partners, and what further guiding principles or constraints might be appropriate for our efforts” [Los Angeles Times’ Ken Dilanian and Janet Stobart].

The Guardian (Paul Lewis) reports that the NSA review panel will be submitting a classified “interim report” to President Obama in the next two weeks, presenting the possible reforms as well as detailing the consequences of the NSA spying revelations on U.S. foreign relations, according to a senior administration official. The full review will be completed by mid-December.

The Department of Defense is also looking into potential military intelligence ties with the NSA program [The Hill’s Carlo Muñoz and Jeremy Herb]. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday that the Pentagon is “examining all the different dynamics that are now out there” regarding the NSA spying allegations.

Meanwhile, DNI James Clapper authorized the declassification and public release of additional documents related to the collection program under section 215 yesterday. While noting that the documents were properly classified, Clapper stated that “the harm to national security from the release of these documents is outweighed by the public interest.”

The USA Freedom Bill, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), and aimed at ending the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records, will be formally introduced this morning [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso and Kate Tummarello]. Leahy and Sensenbrenner have made a case for their legislation in an op-ed in Politico, noting the “serious legal questions” and the “high cost to Americans’ privacy rights.” The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) notes that as competing reform legislation is introduced, members of Congress will face a choice on the NSA program:  “endorse it or shut it down.”

The House Intelligence Committee will also be holding a public hearing on NSA reforms this afternoon. The Guardian has live coverage on today’s developments, including the Committee hearing where DNI James Clapper and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander will be questioned.

Around the world, leaders and senior officials are continuing to express anger over the NSA surveillance program. The Spanish government formally summoned the U.S. ambassador yesterday to address claims that data of 60 million telephone calls in Spain had been collected in just one month [New York Times’ Raphael Minder]. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich warned, “Whoever taps cellphones and phone calls in Germany is liable to prosecution” [Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski]. While acknowledging that there are “special conditions if the guilty parties have diplomatic status…they can be expelled from the country.”

Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also expressed frustration [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman]. Felipe Gonzales, a commissioner and Chilean national, stated, “With a program of this scope, it’s obvious that any form of control becomes illusory.” And The Hill (Julian Pecquet and Justin Sink) covers “at least three separate efforts” of foreign governments aimed at curtailing U.S. surveillance: Germany and Brazil have joined forces at the UN on a resolution establishing an international right to privacy; Germany and France are calling for a new code of conduct with U.S. spy agencies; and EU lawmakers have met with the chairman of the House Intelligence panel and other officials as part of a weeklong visit.

The Wall Street Journal (William Mauldin) reports that former officials and trade experts are also concerned that the spying allegations could create problems for a U.S. trade agreement with the European Union.

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron has called upon newspapers to show “social responsibility” in the reporting of the NSA leaks, or the government might need to use high court injunctions [The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt].

As media analysis continues, the New York Times editorial board, arguing against the NSA program, writes that international spying should only be conducted “in pursuit of a concrete threat to national security.” In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson argues that amidst claims that President Obama was unaware of snooping, either someone in the administration is “lying” or the “NSA, in its quest for omniscience beyond anything Orwell could have imagined, is simply out of control.” And Charlotte Potts writes why Angela Merkel’s indignation is “genuine,” and not merely “manufactured for public consumption” [CNN].

Drone strike

A U.S. missile strike in Somalia yesterday hit a vehicle carrying senior members of an al-Qaeda linked militant group, killing two people [AP]. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the counter-terrorism strike. An al-Shabaab member stated that one of the individuals killed was the group’s top explosives expert, Anta. Eye witnesses at the scene confirmed to Al Jazeera that both fighters killed were Somali and that no one else was harmed. A White House spokesperson declined to comment [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti].

The Guardian’s David Smith covers how al-Shabaab is rebuilding forces in Somalia, and is now established as “an extended hand of al-Qaeda.”

Benghazi

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatened yesterday that he will hold up “every appointment” in the Senate until more questions are answered on Benghazi [Politico’s Lucy McCalmont]. He also expressed his concerns via Twitter:

Fox News (Catherine Herridge) reports that according to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committeee, Rep. Michael McCaul, the fact that Benghazi suspects are not listed as part of the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program is “a sign from the administration they’re not taking it seriously.”

Syria

Yesterday, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported:

The two remaining sites could not be visited “due to security reasons.” The New York Times (Nick Cumming-Bruce and Michael R. Gordon) , Wall Street Journal (Naftali Bendavid) and Washington Post (Joby Warrick) have more on the latest developments.

The Washington Post editorial board argues that Secretary of State John Kerry’s op-ed in Foreign Policy last week amount to “empty words on Syria.” The editorial notes that the current Obama administration policy is unable “to save the millions now threatened with starvation and epidemics as well as bombings and shelling, other than to issue empty calls for ‘the world to act.’” And in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson argues that as chemical weapons disarmament takes place, Syrian brutality and mass civilian attacks continue. He warns that “things could get much worse — unless someone in Syria is readied to oppose the extremists.”

Israel

The Haaretz (Barak Ravid) reports that according to the Israeli army chief, Iran is undergoing “significant, strategic changes,” but still seeks “nuclear threshold” capacity.

CNN (David Simpson) reports on an Israeli air strike against two rocket launchers in Gaza, following yesterday’s intercepted strikes from the Gaza strip. No injuries were reported.

Other developments

President Obama formally welcomed James Comey as the new FBI Director yesterday as “the right man for the job” [Politico’s Jennifer Epstein].

The Washington Post (Rajiv Chandrasekaran) reports on the  U.S.’s “under-the-radar” effort to help African troops to capture warlord, Joseph Kony and his top lieutenants. According to senior U.S. officials, the Pentagon has asked the White House for permission to expand the mission by temporarily basing a sophisticated aircraft in Uganda for quicker access to Kony’s camps.

The New York Times (Matthew Rosenberg) reports how a U.S. Special Forces raid targeting an Afghan convoy disrupted the plan of Afghani intelligence to create an alliance with the Pakistani Taliban. According to an Afghani official, it was an “opportunity to bring peace on our terms.” Officials from both sides have acknowledged that this encounter has caused trouble for the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.

A U.K. citizen has been indicted by the U.S. over alleged cybercrimes against the U.S. Army and NASA, in an attempt to steal confidential data [The Guardian’s Josh Halliday]. He was arrested yesterday by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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