News Roundup and Notes: November 4, 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

ICYMI, on Friday, the New York Times (Scott Shane), reporting in partnership with The Guardian (Ewen MacAskill and James Ball), published a detailed report on the extensive activities of the “all-consuming NSA.” According to one leaked document, the NSA gained “access to UN secretary general talking points prior to meeting with Potus” ahead of a routine meeting in April this year. Based on a review of the documents received by the New York Times, this is “emblematic of an agency” that “seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world.”

Chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees discussed fresh concerns over NSA surveillance on CBS’s Face the Nation (Rebecca Kaplan) yesterday. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) acknowledged that the NSA was acting under directions to keep the country safe, but expressed concern over recent revelations. Feinstein called for a “full review,” stating that tapping phones of allies “has much more political liability than probably intelligence viability.”

Rogers argued, “The question isn’t how you reign in the NSA.” He emphasized instead that oversight committees need to ensure the NSA is following the law. He also claimed, “there are going to be some best actor awards coming out of the White House this year,” indicating that he did not believe President Obama’s claims that he was unaware of the foreign spying.

Both Feinstein and Rogers rejected the suggestion that Edward Snowden might receive clemency in the U.S. Feinstein claimed that Snowden has “done this enormous disservice to our country.” The Hill (Jeremy Herb), Politico (Jonathan Topaz) and Washington Post (Holly Yeager) have more on this story.

Meanwhile, Snowden has written a letter titled “A Manifesto for the Truth,” published in German magazine Der Spiegel yesterday [CNN’s Chelsea Carter and Susanna Capelouto]. In the letter, he wrote:

While the NSA and [U.K.’s] GCHQ appear to be the worst offenders – at least according to the documents that are currently public – we cannot forget that mass surveillance is a global problem and needs a global solution.

On Friday, a German lawmaker claimed that Snowden expressed willingness to testify in the German inquiry into NSA’s spying allegations, but doubts remain about how this would be possible [AFP].

In the U.K., a coalition of rights groups, which includes organizations from 40 countries, has written an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron in The Guardian, arguing that “national security should never be used to justify preventing disclosures of illegalities or wrongdoing.” The letter calls on Cameron “to honour the UK’s international obligations to defend and protect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom, and to end the UK government’s pressure on the Guardian and those who assist them.”

The Hill (Megan Wilson) reports that the National Rifle Association is the latest group to support ending the NSA surveillance operation. It has signed onto the ACLU lawsuit against the agency and endorsed the USA Freedom bill out of concern that the NSA could collect information that could be used to create a federal gun database.

The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum covers how the NSA surveillance scandal has led to proposals in Germany aimed at keeping its internet and email traffic within domestic borders. Such “efforts to nationalize Internet traffic” are also being seen in Brazil, while EU leaders have proposed developing “cloud” data storage that is independent from the U.S.

Fareed Zakaria argues that the U.S. cannot resort to the “law of the jungle,” and calls for “a better and clearer set of rules for intelligence activity” [CNN].

And later today, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will be holding a public hearing on NSA surveillance.

Drones

The Pakistani Taliban confirmed the death of their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud by a U.S. drone strike on Friday [AP’s Ishtiaq Mahsud and Rasool Dawar]. Mehsud was wanted for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and for his violent campaigns in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians as well as security forces.

Amidst growing anger against U.S. drones operations, Pakistan summoned the U.S. ambassador on Saturday to protest against the strike [Al Jazeera America]. Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar told The Express Tribune:

Government of Pakistan does not see this strike as a strike on an individual, but on the peace process.

Nisar questioned the timing of Friday’s strikes, on the eve of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban. And in a statement from the Prime Minister’s office yesterday, Pakistan will be reviewing its relationship with the U.S. [Reuters’s Jibran Ahmad]. However, the top-level meeting, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed at the last minute.

The Wall Street Journal (Saeed Shah) reports that the Pakistani Taliban has vowed to avenge the U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan. Meanwhile, the group has elected Asmatullah Shaheen, who is on Pakistan’s most wanted list, as their interim head [CNN]. And the New York Times (Declan Walsh) covers how the drone strike has turned Pakistan’s “Public Enemy No. 1” into a “victim.”

The State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Saturday on the drone strike, emphasizing U.S.’s “shared interest with Pakistan to bring an end to extremist violence” in the country. She added that the “issue of whether to negotiate [with the Taliban] is an internal matter for Pakistan.”

Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry stated at a press conference in Cairo yesterday that Washington and its allies “share the same goal…the salvation of the state of Syria and a transition government put in place under Geneva 1 that can give the people of Syria the opportunity to choose their future.” He also stated, “Assad, by virtue of his loss of moral authority, cannot be part of that because of the difficulties of his ever representing all of the people of Syria.”

Al Jazeera reports that the future of the peace talks on Syria are in question, with the Syrian Foreign Ministry responding to Kerry’s remarks, claiming:

[The remarks] are a flagrant violation of Syrian affairs and an aggression against the Syrian people’s right to decide their future.

The Syrian opposition also set out its terms for attending the peace talks yesterday [Reuters’ Yasmine Saleh and Ayman Samir]:

We have decided not to enter Geneva talks unless it is with dignity, and unless there is a successful transfer of power with a specific timeframe, and without the occupier Iran at the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, Free Syrian Army leader Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi announced his resignation yesterday because of “some people’s refusal to heed calls for unity” [AFP].

And in an interview with The Guardian, Turkish president Abdullah Gul claimed that increasing radicalization in Syria could lead to “something like Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean” (Simon Tisdall). Gul stated that the conflict poses a danger for “everyone” and called for a “solid position” from the international community.

Iran

The New York Times’ (Thomas Erdbrink and Jodi Rudoren) covers how both Iran and the U.S. engaged in “public diplomacy” yesterday ahead of the second round of negotiations in Geneva later this week.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated he was not optimistic that the negotiations would succeed. However, he silenced hardliners who have criticized the diplomatic efforts, stating:

No one has the right to see our negotiating team as compromisers…They have a difficult mission, and no one has the right to weaken an official who is doing his job.

Meanwhile, U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman attempted to reassure Israel of “President Obama’s commitment that Iran not obtain a nuclear weapon” in an interview with Channel 10 News in Israel.

And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed on Twitter earlier this morning that he had the Supreme Leader’s support:

However, tens of thousands of hardliners gathered outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran today in protest of Rouhani’s outreach to the West [AP].

The New York Times editorial board calls upon Congress to “work constructively” with Obama on Iran, as the negotiations offer the “best opportunity in years for a peaceful resolution of an issue that has long blocked any fundamental improvement in relations between the two countries while complicating the prospects for stability in the Middle East.” The editorial argues that this is the “wrong time for doubling-down on a punitive policy.”

And in an op-ed in Politico, Senator Marco Rubio urges the U.S. to “pressure Iran with tighter sanctions,” warning that it is “far too premature to let up the pressure.”

Egypt

In a press conference in Cairo yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry “welcomed [Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil] Fahmy’s restatement of the interim government’s commitment to the roadmap that will move Egypt forward on an inclusive path to democracy and to economic stability.” Kerry also emphasized that the decision on aid is not a “punishment,” but “a reflection of a policy in the United States under our law.” The New York Times (Michael Gordon) and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung) have more on this development.

Ousted President Mohammed Morsi arrived for his trial earlier this morning, when he claimed he was the “legitimate” leader of the country and that the court had no jurisdiction to try him [AP]. The trial has been adjourned until January 8, 2014 to allow the defense team to review all the documents.

Iraq

The Wall Street Journal (Dion Nissenbaum and Jared Favole) reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Washington “fell short of securing more U.S. military aid and exposed divisions about the causes and cures for rising violence in his country.”

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) notes that the recent surge in violence in Iraq “risks turning the troubled country into a political liability for President Obama.” And The Economist argues that Maliki’s political sense is “lacking” and warns that “the spirit of compromise [in the country] is in even more urgent need of resuscitation.”

Other developments

Speaking this morning in Riyadh, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the Saudis as “the senior player in the Arab world” and called for “U.S.-Saudi ties to stay ‘on track’” [AFP’s Jo Biddle].

A report of the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centres has concluded that health professionals working with the military and intelligence services “designed and participated in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees” [The Guardian’s Sarah Boseley].

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Esther  Brimmer notes that the U.S. is set to lose its vote at UNESCO due to three-years of non-payment owing to U.S. legislation that blocks treaty-obligated funding to a UN agency if Palestine is granted membership. Brimmer calls for the legislation to be revised to ensure that U.S. national interest is not undermined in the process.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has told Fox News Sunday that he “shouldn’t have to…make these threats,” but has reiterated his threat to block all Obama nominees until further information on last year’s Benghazi attack is provided.

House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) announced yesterday that the Transportation Security Administration and Congress will review airport security procedures in the aftermath of the Los Angeles International Airport shooting, where a TSA agent was killed [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb].

The Wall Street Journal (Julian Barnes) reports that “financial considerations [are] vital” as the Department of Defense aims to build a new bomber plane.

In the bribery case involving U.S. navy commander, Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz, the criminal complaint alleges that Misiewicz  moved navy vessels around like chess pieces, “diverting aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships to Asian ports with lax oversight where [Leonard Francis’s Singapore-based defense company] could inflate costs,” reports the AP.

The Washington Post (Sudarsan Raghavan) notes the launch by the UN Security Council of the Forward Intervention Brigade in Congo in a “bold attempt to defeat the dozens of militias.” The brigade is the UN’s “first offensive combat force and is seen as a possible model for defusing crises in other chaotic parts of the world,” but the model “is also an unparalleled gamble…that challenges the basic principles of peacekeeping.”

The Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal sentenced a U.S. citizen and a U.K. citizen to death, following a conviction in absentia for crimes against humanity committed during the war in 1971 [Wall Street Journal’s Syed Zain Al-Mahmood].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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