News Roundup and Notes: October 31, 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.

Surveillance

The Washington Post (Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani) reported yesterday that the NSA, along with its British counterpart GCHQ, intercepts the main overseas communication links that connect Google and Yahoo data centers around the world, positioning itself “to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans.” According to a top-secret document dated January 9, 2013, received from Edward Snowden, the NSA sends millions of records every day from Google and Yahoo networks to the agency’s data warehouses at its Fort Meade headquarters.

The program is distinct from PRISM, under which the NSA has access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a judicial process. This interception is carried out under Executive Order 12333, which defines basic rules for overseas surveillance, with fewer restrictions than those under FISA. The Washington Post (Barton Gellman et al.) also provides a flowchart detailing how the NSA is infiltrating private networks.

Google’s chief legal officer responded to the report, stating [Washington Post]:

We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.

A Yahoo spokesperson responded [Washington Post]:

We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.

But the NSA denied the allegations in the reports, claiming [Washington Post]:

The Washington Post’s assertion that we use Executive Order 12333 collection to get around the limitations imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and FAA 702 is not true. The assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons’ data from this type of collection is also not true. NSA applies Attorney General-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons… [NSA is] focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only.

The statement is silent on whether the NSA infiltrated the data center connections at all.

The New York Times (Charlie Savage et al.) turns attention toward Level 3, the company that owns and operates the communications cables used by Google. A spokesperson for the company responded to the leaks, stating:

We comply with the laws in each country where we operate. In general, governments that seek assistance in law enforcement or security investigations prohibit disclosure of the assistance provided.

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Shane Harris et al.) has more reactions from outraged technology industry executives and former intelligence officials, noting concerns that the “most enduring setback on national security from all of this could well be the impact on U.S. companies.” The Wall Street Journal (Anton Troianovski et al.) also covers how revelations of the NSA’s spying programs have hindered AT&T’s ambitions to expand in Europe.

In further revelations, Italian magazine Panorama claimed yesterday that the NSA “wire-tapped the Pope” [Al Jazeera]. It alleged that the U.S. might have “continued to tap prelates’ conversations up to the eve of the conclave” and that there were “suspicions that the conversations of the future pope may have been monitored”. The NSA quickly denied these allegations, stating that the assertions in Panorama “are not true” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

Spanish newspaper El Mundo claimed to have documents detailing collaboration between U.S. intelligence and its overseas allies [The Guardian’s Paul Hamilos]. According to the document, the Spanish government facilitated the NSA in spying on its citizens. Amidst growing anger in the country, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoyhe announced in parliament that the head of Spain’s intelligence services will give a closed-door briefing to a parliamentary committee about the NSA spying allegations [AP].

French newspaper Le Monde also “partially backtracked” on its earlier report on U.S. spying in France, reports the Wall Street Journal (David Roman et al.). Le Monde quoted an unnamed French intelligence official confirming that the country’s intelligence service DGSE had also collected phone records overseas and shared them with the NSA.

And Al Jazeera America (Jason Leopold) has obtained an internal document through a Freedom of Information Act request that contains “talking points” for NSA officials responding to media revelations about the agency’s spying program. For “sound bites that resonate,” the agency recommends:

I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.

As foreign leaders continue to express outrage, EU lawmakers demanded answers in a meeting with Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco and other officials at the White House yesterday [CNN’s Leslie Bentz]. Politico (Josh Gerstein) reports that a senior member of the EU delegation, Elmar Brok suggested to reporters that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander acknowledged that his agency does some work in Europe “unilaterally.” Separately, a German delegation also visited the White House yesterday to clarify concerns about the NSA spying [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

China and Southeast Asian governments have joined other foreign governments in demanding an explanation from Washington over claims that as many as 35 foreign leaders have been spied upon by the U.S. [AP]. And according to a UN spokesperson, “U.S. authorities have given assurances that United Nations communications are not and will not be monitored [Al Jazeera]. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether the U.S. had previously spied on the UN.

In a related development, the New York Times’ Somini Sengupta covers how state legislatures around the U.S. are proposing a series of privacy laws, amidst growing public concern about data privacy combined with Congress inaction.

The New York Times (Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger) notes that the allegations involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel reveal “previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies…all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.”

CNN (Christopher Slobogin) questions whether the NSA has gone “rogue.” And in an op-ed, Nicholas D. Kristof argues “it’s time to pause for a breath in the security realm and start examining the trade-offs, rather than just [spying] because we can” [New York Times].

Drones

According to official data provided by the Pakistani Ministry of Defense, more than 2,000 suspected terrorists have been killed in 317 drone strikes in the past five years, with only 67 innocent civilians deaths in the attacks [Dawn]. The number of civilian deaths is lower than that quoted by the UN report earlier this month as well as figures quoted by rights groups. However, political parties across the board in Pakistan continue to call for a halt to the U.S. strikes.

Benghazi

Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), blamed the FBI at a press conference yesterday for allowing the suspects in the Benghazi attack to remain free in Libya “without any accountability” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

Fox News (Catherine Herridge) covers that that the Justice and State departments are blocking access of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to Benghazi’s survivors, on the basis of “significant risks” and “serious concerns about having the survivors of the attack submit to additional interviews.”

Syria

Earlier this morning, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced the completion of destruction activities at all chemical weapons sites, ahead of its deadline of November 1:

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi at yesterday’s meeting in Damascus that he is open to peace talks, but that foreign countries must stop supporting rebel fighters [Al Jazeera]. Assad stated:

Putting an end to support for the terrorists and pressuring the states that support them is the most important step to prepare… for dialogue.

And Reuters (Khaled Yacoub Oweis) reports that according to Arab and western officials, differences between Washington and Moscow over opposition representation are making it unlikely that the Geneva talks will convene next month. According to officials, the delay of the Syrian National Coalition in making a decision on participation might also contribute to a delay of up to one month. UN, U.S. and Russian envoys are set to meet next week as part of preparatory talks.

The New York Times editorial board notes that while the civil war continues, “contributing generously and…pressuring both sides in the conflict to allow aid workers to deliver essential supplies” is necessary to alleviate suffering in what “may be the worst humanitarian disaster since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.”

Israel 

The Israeli government is to begin advancing construction plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank that will lead to around 5,000 new housing units, in a move that seeks to “offset” the release of the Palestinian prisoners [Haaretz’s Barak Ravid]. This includes implementing the prior plan of building 1,500 apartments in East Jerusalem. A U.S. State Department spokesperson criticized the announcement, stating, “We do not believe construction in settlements or East Jerusalem is helpful to the process or creates a positive atmosphere for continued negotiations.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the announcement:

Settlement activity is contrary to international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace. Any measures that prejudge final status issues will not be recognised by the international community.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Richard Falk also warned yesterday that companies involved with housing settlements in the occupied territories may be held criminally accountable [UN News Centre].

Iran

According to Iran’s top nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, “Twenty percent uranium and nuclear plates are being produced inside the country and there has never been a halt in the production trend” [New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink]. The statement contradicted one made by Iranian lawmaker Hossein Naqavi Hosseini last week that the country had voluntarily halted production of twenty percent uranium.

Iraq

At yesterday’s meeting between Vice President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the U.S. reiterated its “commitment to equip Iraqis to fight Al Qaeda,” and Prime Minister Maliki made clear that he “views the United States as Iraq’s security partner of choice.”

Meanwhile, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin has stated to the Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) that Iraqi security forces are responding inadequately, and “[if] left unchecked, we could find ourselves in a regional sectarian struggle that could last a decade. 

Other developments

Los Angeles Times’ Laura King covers the rising political tensions in Egypt ahead of ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s trial, due to begin on Monday.

Afghan envoys will be meeting with Afghani Taliban’s former deputy leader in Pakistan, aimed at restarting peace talks ahead of U.S.-led troops withdrawing from the country at the end of next year [Wall Street Journal’s Margherita Stancati and Saeed Shah].

BBC reports that the government troops in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have captured the town of Bunagana, the main base of the M23 rebel group, according to officials.

Aidarous Nasr al-Nakib details Yemen’s journey “between State and non-State,” and warns that the “long-awaited outcomes of the ongoing national dialogue…will not easily see the light” [Al-Monitor and Al-Tagheer].

A suicide bomb in Tunisia yesterday “dealt a new blow to Tunisia’s fragile transition as it grapples with rising Islamist extremism and political deadlock between secular and Islamist parties” [New York Times’ Carlotta Gall].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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