News Roundup and Notes: October 30, 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

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander dismissed allegations of U.S. bulk collection of data in Europe as “completely false” [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso]. He stated:

This is not information we collected on European citizens…It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.

DNI James Clapper also defended the NSA operations at the hearing, claiming, “we don’t…spy unlawfully on Americans — or for that matter spy indiscriminately on citizens of any country.” Clapper said that the White House is informed of important intelligence details that the agencies collect, but the NSA does not always share information of individual targets. He also indicated that allies would have similarly targeted U.S. leaders. [AP’s Lara Jakes and Julie Pace].

Politico (Josh Gerstein and Jennifer Epstein) and the New York Times (Mark Landler And Michael S. Schmidt) have more on this story.

At the hearing, House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) warned Clapper and Alexander that “there will be changes” to the NSA operations [The Hill’s Carlo Munoz].

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed some indication of reform efforts yesterday, stating:

An active review…has led to some changes in the way that we conduct our intelligence-gathering activities already, but that will, upon conclusion, result in us being able to make public…some of the changes that we’ve been able to make, mindful of the fact that we’re talking about very sensitive issues.

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Shane Harris et al.) reports that House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers is the latest to express frustration at claims that the President and lawmakers were not informed of NSA’s activities. Although he refused to confirm knowledge of any specific operation, he claimed:

To make the case that somehow we are in the dark is mystifying to me…it is disingenuous to imply that this committee did not have a full and complete understanding of activities of the intelligence community.

Meanwhile, administration officials have told the Wall Street Journal (Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman) that the allegations of NSA mass surveillance abroad are false, and that European spying agencies, including in France and Spain, collected data “in war zones and other areas outside their borders” and shared it with the U.S. French officials declined to respond to the allegations. However, a Spanish official responded, stating that the intelligence collaboration with the NSA was limited to operations in Mali, Afghanistan and against certain jihadist groups.

The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung) also reports on this development. Commenting on the failure of the French government to challenge Le Monde’s allegations of NSA surveillance, a U.S. official speaking on conditions of anonymity stated, “We have wrestled with how you correct a story that’s wrong about classified operations — particularly operations that are not yours.” The Post also notes that in a separate development, current and former officials have detailed that in 2008, Germany’s intelligence service inadvertently turned over a list of 300 phone numbers of U.S. citizens and residents, suggesting that Germany was conducting surveillance in the U.S. The German Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

And in the latest revelations on global surveillance, Italian newspapers, La Stampa and Corriere della Sera reported yesterday that Russia spied on foreign powers at last month’s G20 summit by providing delegates with USB pen drives capable of downloading information from laptops [The Telegraph’s Nick Squires et al.]. A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the allegations, claiming that this was a “clear attempt to divert attention from a problem that really exists: the US’s spying” [The Guardian’s Lizzy Davies]. A former Foreign Minister of Greece has also revealed that his country’s intelligence services had spied on phone conversations of American ambassadors to Greece and Turkey in the 1990s [AP].

The EU and the U.S. reportedly clashed over whether the Safe Harbor data-privacy agreement between the allies sufficiently protects the personal data of Europeans held by U.S. companies [Wall Street Journal’s Brent Kendall and Frances Robinson]. The New York Times (Andrew Higgins and James Kanter) notes that even amidst the uproar over NSA surveillance, the EU is delaying the new data privacy law, in what appears to be “contradictions between the verbal support for privacy among European leaders and their own policy decisions.”

In the U.S., the USA Freedom bill, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) was introduced yesterday, with 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 70 in the House [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso]. MSNBC’s Adam Serwer reports on how even former NSA supporters are joining the critics in calling for reform of the agency’s operations. Six lawmakers who voted against last July’s effort to defund the NSA data collection program will now be among the co-sponsors of the USA Freedom legislation aimed at halting the surveillance program.

As debate and analysis continues, the Washington Post editorial board notes that the “NSA spying shows how to lose friends and alienate allies.” The editorial argues that while a “witch hunt at the NSA” or the “dismantlement of vital collection operations” is not necessary, there is need for the “establishment of greater political control and accountability for sensitive foreign operations.”

David Rothkopf writes that the President’s “ignorance” excuse is not satisfactory on spying [CNN]. And The Guardian editorial calls upon U.K. parliamentarians to take note of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s call for a review of all U.S. intelligence programs, stating that there is a need to re-examine systems of oversight.

Benghazi

CNN’s Security Clearance (Barbara Starr) reports that the U.S. raid in Tripoli earlier this month, which led to the capture of al-Qaeda operative al-Liby, was the closest the special operation forces have been to capturing Ahmed Abu Khattalah, according to U.S. officials. Khattalah, a leading figure in the Ansar Al-Sharia militia, is suspected of orchestrating the Benghazi attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission last year.

Syria

According to Syrian state television, deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil has been fired by the Syrian regime for spending too much time outside Syria and holding meetings “without coordinating with the government” [New York Times’ Anne Barnard]. Jamil has been a strong supporter of reform, holding meetings with American and Russian officials about peace talks.

NBC News (Thabet Salem and F. Brinley Bruton) reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty for all political prisoners yesterday, but there was no indication that prisoners had been released.

The government and opposition fighters negotiated a ceasefire that allowed over 1,500 civilians to flee Syria’s Muadhamiya yesterday, but there are fears that many civilians are still trapped [BBC].

The World Health Organisation has confirmed an outbreak of polio in Syria, the first for 14 years [The Guardian’s Ian Black]. Health organizations are calling for ceasefires to deal with the polio threat.

Iraq

A bipartisan group of Senators have warned President Obama in a letter that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence” [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan]. They recommend greater counter-terrorism aid for Iraq to deal with the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates in the country.

And ahead of this week’s visit to the White House, Maliki asked for America’s “patience” in an op-ed in the New York Times. He focused on the rising threat from terrorist organizations in Iraq and called for a “deeper security relationship between the United States and Iraq to combat terrorism and address broader regional security concerns.”

Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are set to lobby against the latest congressional sanctions against Iran, and will hold a top-secret briefing with senators on Thursday to warn about the impact of U.S. sanctions [Politico’s John Bresnahan and Manu Raju].

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported yesterday that it had held a “very productive” two-day meeting in Vienna with Iran to resolve questions on Iran’s nuclear program [New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin and Rick Gladstone].

The New York Times editorial board notes that “America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies,” including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel over, among other issues, the administration’s policies with respect to Iran, Syria and Egypt. The editorial warns that Obama must “reassure the allies that the United States remains committed to their security.”

Egypt

The Obama administration asked Congress yesterday for legislative flexibility that would allow U.S. aid to Egypt to continue, on the basis that the assistance is crucial to U.S. interests in the region [Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño]. 

Meanwhile, senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Arian is the latest arrest as part of the government’s crackdown against the group [al-Jazeera]. 

Other developments

In an op-ed in Politico, Jon Kyl And Joe Lieberman warn that cuts to defense “don’t only harm national security, they will weaken the economy.” They point to the less visible effects, such as how the U.S. military’s “stabilizing presence in critical parts of the world has been one of the engines of the extraordinary global economic growth since World War II.”

Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners earlier this morning as part of the U.S.-brokered peace talks between the two sides [AP’s Mohammed Daraghmeh].

Four French hostages have been released after being abducted by Islamic extremists in Niger three years ago [France 24].

The Wall Street Journal (Nathan Hodge and Nicholas Winning) reports that Afghani and Pakistani leaders sought to repair national ties, discussing regional stability in talks hosted by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

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).