News Roundup and Notes: October 20, 2015

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.

IRAQ and SYRIA

The Iraqi government and American-led coalition are making progress against the Islamic State for the first time in months. Coalition-supported Iraqi forces are on the outskirts of Ramadi and are trying to expand their foothold at the Baiji oil refinery in Iraq, while the US parachuted 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian rebels near Raqqa last week. [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt]

At least 45 people were killed in Russian airstrikes in Latakia province, north of the Assad-controlled region of Syria. Among the dead are an unknown number of civilians and a rebel commander and his family. [Agence France-Presse]

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has traveled to Iraq to receive an update on the fight against the Islamic State. He has said that contrary to earlier reports, there is no prospect for Russia expanding its airstrikes into the country. [Associated Press’ Lolita C. Baldor]

AFGHANISTAN

Germany, Turkey, and Italy are now planning to keep their deployments in Afghanistan at current levels in the wake of the US’ announcement that it would slow its troop withdrawals. NATO said it will decide on troop reductions based on events, not pre-established timelines. [Reuters’ Robin Emmott]

The General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières has called into question whether the US bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz was truly an accident. He said the airstrikes’ “extensive, quite precise destruction” of the hospital indicated the bombing campaign was not a mistake. [Associated Press’ Najim Rahim and Lynne O’Donnell]

Afghanistan’s acting defense minister has said that the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz was being used by the Taliban as a “safe place.” Masoom Stanekzai said insurgents were using the hospital to launch attacks because they knew Afghan and international security forces would avoid attacking a hospital. [Associated Press’ Lynne O’Donnell]

US and Afghan troops drove a military vehicle through a locked gate at the site of the bombed hospital in Kunduz last Thursday, the Pentagon has confirmed. The troops were inspecting the damage to determine whether the structure could be rebuilt and mistakenly believed that no Médecins Sans Frontières personnel were on site at the time. [Agence France-Presse]

TECHNOLOGY and PRIVACY

An anonymous hacker claims to have hacked into the personal email accounts of CIA Director John Brennan and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. The hacker is described as a “stoner high school student” and released information he says he found in the email accounts. [Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian]

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Adm. Mike Rogers of the NSA continued to disagree about encryption at a Wall Street Journal event on Monday. Rogers said he supported “strong encryption,” but wouldn’t go so far as to say he supported impenetrable encryption, while Cook said there was no way to build a backdoor that was only for the “good guys.” Both called for a toning down of the rhetoric used in discussions on the topic. [Wall Street Journal’s Danny Yadron and Daisuke Wakabayashi]

BENGHAZI INVESTIGATION

The CIA has said that the name of a Libyan source was not classified, despite having been partially redacted by the State Department in a recent release of some of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The redaction was one of the focal points of the sparring by Benghazi Committee Republicans and Democrats over the weekend. [Reuters’ Mark Hosenball] The State Department chalked the redaction up to “human error” and a desire to protect the man’s privacy. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

House Democrats sitting on the committee have released excerpts from several closed-door interviews. They say that there is no evidence after 54 interviews that Hillary Clinton personally reduced security numbers or ordered the military to stand down the night of the 2011 attack. [Politico’s Rachael Bade]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is scheduled to sign the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday, triggering the 10-day window during which President Obama can execute his promised veto of the bill. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong] The President has threatened to veto previous years’ iterations of the bill, but has never followed through. [The Intercept’s Jenna McLaughlin]

One of the five men standing trial for plotting the 9/11 attacks asked if he could defend himself rather than use a Pentagon-paid death penalty lawyer. Walid Bin Attash’s lawyer says he was tortured by the CIA before being brought to Guantánamo and thus does not trust the independence of the lawyers involved in the military commission process. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Libya’s government rejected a UN proposal for a power-sharing arrangement in the country because the UN refused to exclude amendments added by various Islamist rivals without the government’s consent. [Associated Press’ Rami Musa]

A report on the recent activities of the Irish Republican Army will be published later today. Members of the Northern Irish government have threatened to expel Sinn Féin, historically the political arm of the IRA, from the current power-sharing arrangement if the report reveals the IRA is still engaged in terrorism. [Guardian’s Henry McDonald]

South Korea’s intelligence agency believes that North Korea is preparing for a fourth nuclear test, but that the test will not take place in the immediate future. [Associated Press]

The pilots who operate drones are shrouded in mystery, but Kevin Maurer presents a look behind the curtain in a Daily Beast profile of two operators who fly missions over Afghanistan and Iraq.

An influential Turkish cleric living in exile in the US will face trial in absentia for terrorism charges in Turkey early next year. Fethullah Gulen faces charges of “running a terrorist group” for his part in allegedly attempting to weaken Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan through a large-scale government corruption probe. [Agence France-Presse]

It’s time for the US to move beyond its focus on counterterrorism as the core of its Middle East policy, argues Daniel Byman. “By fixating on counterterrorism, the United States overlooks opportunities to prevent or mitigate civil wars and regional conflicts … . And it antagonizes allies and distorts the public perception of U.S. strengths and vulnerabilities.” [Foreign Affairs] 

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About the Author(s)

Megan Graham

Former Assistant Managing Editor and Security, Privacy, and Technology Fellow at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@meganmcgraham).

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).