News Roundup and Notes: November 1, 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

Spying revelations continue, with the Sydney Morning Herald (Philip Dorling) reporting yesterday that Australian embassies across Asia were being used as part of a U.S.-led spying network. According to documents from Edward Snowden and a former Australian intelligence officer, Australian embassies and diplomatic posts, including those in Beijing, Jakarta and Hanoi, were being used to intercept phone calls and data as part of a program code-named STATEROOM. The report is based on the NSA document originally published by German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to respond to the specific allegations, but stated:

Every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official at home and abroad operates in accordance with the law and that’s the assurance that I can give people at home and abroad.

These latest allegations have sparked further outrage among foreign governments. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded that her government is “severely concerned about the reports and demands a clarification and explanation” [Washington Post’s William Wan]. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said his government is investigating whether such intelligence gathering had taken place, adding, “It is a sensitive issue since it involves several countries.”

Indonesia has summoned the Australian ambassador for an explanation over the allegations [BBC]. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa strongly criticized the surveillance claims, adding:

If confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security, but also a serious breach of diplomatic norms and ethics.

Brazil is reportedly moving quickly to pass a new law that would require internet companies like Google to store data about Brazilian users inside Brazil, subject to domestic privacy laws [Renesys’ Doug Madory].

And German parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele met with Edward Snowden in Moscow yesterday to explore whether Snowden would testify before a German parliamentary inquiry into the NSA’s surveillance operations in Germany [New York Times].

Beyond foreign governments, technology firms are also calling for increased restrains on the NSA. A coalition of six major firms – including Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo – sent a letter to the sponsors of the USA Freedom bill yesterday, calling for “critical reforms” [Politico’s Alex Byers]:

Transparency is a critical first step to an informed public debate, but it is clear that more needs to be done. Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs.

The New York Times (Claire Cain Miller) and Washington Post (Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima) have more on this development.

Meanwhile, Reuters (Mark Hosenball) reported yesterday that according to a U.S. official, President Obama ordered the NSA to stop spying on the IMF and World Bank headquarters in the last few weeks as part of the administration’s review process. The NSA and ODNI had no immediate comment.

Speaking at a London conference via video yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the NSA, but admitted that some of its actions have “reached too far” [CNN’s Security Clearance]:

…yes, in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately. And the President…is determined to try to clarify and make clear for people and is now doing a thorough review in order that nobody will have the sense of abuse.

Kerry also stated that the President had “learned of some things that had been happening, in many ways, on an automatic pilot because the technology is there, the ability has been there, over the course of a long period of time.”

On the other hand, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander suggested that U.S. diplomats were to blame for requesting the NSA to place foreign leaders under surveillance, in a “pointed exchange” with the former U.S. ambassador to Romania [The Guardian’s Paul Lewis].

And the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the FISA Improvements Act, authored by Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) yesterday, which seeks to amend but not end the NSA’s surveillance operations [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso]. Among other changes, Feinstein’s bill prohibits analysts from listening in on calls and codifies the requirement that there must be “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number is associated with terrorism before searching the database. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (Trevor Timm) argues that Feinstein’s bill will “codify and extend mass surveillance of Americans.”

The Economist writes that while foreign alarm over NSA revelations is mounting, “sound and fury do not always match up.” And in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum argues that we need to “start talking seriously — with our big companies, but also with our major allies — about creating new international norms” to safeguard our private data.

Syria

U.S. senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee strongly criticized the Obama administration on Syria during Syria envoy, Ambassador Robert Ford’s testimony yesterday [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. They called the administration’s reluctance to fully back the opposition an “embarrassment.” The CIA’s program to provide military training to moderate Syrian rebels was also denounced as “incredibly, incredibly slow” as it had instructed only about 1,000 fighters (Tribune Washington Bureau’s Paul Richter).

On the ground, Islamist rebels are gaining strength in the suburbs of Damascus, having “dramatically increased mortar and rocket attacks on regime-held residential neighborhoods within the capital” [Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher]. The Telegraph (Ruth Sherlock) reports that hundreds of al-Qaeda recruits are entering Syria from “safe houses” in southern Turkey, and is likely to “raise questions about the role the Nato member is playing in Syria’s civil war.”

A U.S. official has confirmed to ABC News (Luis Martinez and Josh Margolin) that Israeli warplanes carried out an airstrike yesterday against a Syrian military facility near Latakia. Allegedly, the attack targeted Russian missiles that were to be transferred to Lebanon-based extremist group Hezbollah. An Israeli source also confirmed the attack to ABC News, but the Israeli government has not acknowledged the strike.

Reuters (Thomas Grove) reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned to Russian banks in an attempt to provide arms, oil and food for his regime, with some Russian lenders also looking to strengthening ties.

Drones

Imran Khan, the political leader in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, threatened yesterday to end NATO supply routes if U.S. drone strikes continue during Pakistan’s peace talks with the Taliban [Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Haq Nawaz Khan]. He feared the strikes would undermine Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace negotiations, which reportedly began yesterday.

Meanwhile, in light of the Pakistani government’s recent statistics on drone attacks, the Dawn editorial notes that “no set of figures can be taken as accurate, unless more details are released.” Calling for greater action from the government against foreign militants, the editorial argues, “While we believe that America’s unilateral drone strikes violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and are not legitimate, the state is also responsible for its lack of action and for leaving a vacuum to be filled — unlawfully — by the US.”

Neha Ansari similarly argues in The Express Tribune that “veracity of these statistics…needs to be established,” noting that the statistics could result “in being counterproductive for Pakistan’s campaign against drone strikes.”

Benghazi

CNN (Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston) reports that CIA security officers will be testifying at a classified Benghazi hearing before the House Intelligence subcommittee during the week of November 11, according to sources.

Israel

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reports that Israel’s security cabinet has confirmed its decision to not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, despite recent support for the treaty from high-ranking defense officials.

The Islamist group Hamas said that an Israeli air strike killed three militants in the Gaza Strip earlier this morning [Reuters]. This followed an overnight clash that left a Palestinian gunman dead and wounded five Israeli soldiers.

Palestinian negotiators offered their resignations yesterday in protest over Israel’s continued plans to expand settlements and the lack of strong American action on this issue [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]. According to an official, Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was unlikely to accept the resignations.

The Washington Post (Anne Gearan and William Booth) reports that Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank next week, amidst pressure that the administration has failed to show progress between Israel and Palestine, six months before the unofficial deadline for a final peace deal between the two sides.

Iran

Members of the Senate Banking Committee have suggested they are open to delaying new sanctions against Iran beyond next week, following lobbying from Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. Biden told Politico he was “not concerned” that Congress would move forward with additional sanctions as “the sanctions are tough” (John Bresnahan and Manu Raju).

Iraq

In a speech in Washington yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the civil war in Syria and the failures of the Arab Spring were responsible for the rising violence in his country [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E Barnes].

The Washington Post editorial board argues that the “U.S. needs to hold Nouri al-Maliki accountable,” ahead of his scheduled meeting with Obama this morning. According to the editorial, additional U.S. aid should be preceded by, among other things, fulfilled promises to reach deals with Sunni and Kurdish leaders and assurances that next year’s elections will be “free and fair.”

Other developments

The U.S. Justice Department is intervening in a whistleblower lawsuit against the federal contractor, United States Investigations Service (USIS), responsible for conducting background investigations used to grant security clearances  [Wall Street Journal]. USIS allegedly cut corners by “dumping” incomplete cases to speed up the review process and maximize profits.

The Washington Post (Ann E. Marimow and Carol D. Leonnig) reports that a federal judge has granted permission allowing the government to privately brief her on the alleged national security risks in releasing certain classified information in Stephen J. Kim’s prosecution involving a leak to Fox News. Some legal experts have argued this decision ignores the law, placing the defendant at a disadvantage.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the decision of Judge Shira Scheindlin yesterday, which requires changes to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, pending the outcome of an appeal [AP].

Secretary of State John Kerry will be travelling to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, next week to “smooth relations” with allies [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone].

Kenyan military authorities have stated that the country’s air force attacked an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia yesterday [Al Jazeera America]. A military press release stated this was part of a broader mission in conjunction with AMISOM, the UN-backed African Union mission in Somalia.

The ACLU, Stanford Law School International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, and the RFK Center have a hearing today before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the use of drones by states in the Americas, included on the U.S.’s targeted killing program. The public hearing will be broadcast online.

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).