News Roundup and Notes: November 5, 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

At the hearing held by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board yesterday, intelligence officials suggested some changes to the NSA’s surveillance program [Reuters’ Alina Selyukh]. DNI General Counsel Robert Litt stated at the hearing:

We are open to consideration of a variety of possible reforms to the program so long as they don’t eliminate its utility.

Suggested reforms included reducing the length of time that metadata is retained from five to three years; reducing the number of so-called “hops” from one person’s telephone record to another’s to track targets from three to two; and extending greater privacy protection to foreign citizens. The Hill (Kate Tummarello) and Politico (Josh Gerstein) have more on the hearing.

The New York Times (David E. Sanger) covers the different developments as the Obama administration considers reigning in the NSA program, “including holding White House reviews of the world leaders the agency is monitoring, forging a new accord with Germany for a closer intelligence relationship and minimizing collection on some foreigners.” However, the article notes that for now, the administration has concluded that there is no alternative to the bulk collection of metadata.

Attorney General Eric Holder has told Politico (Josh Gerstein) that U.S. officials are not only concerned with the privacy of American citizens, but also that of European citizens. Holder told reporters, “We’re in conversations with our partners in Europe and other parts of the world to make sure that we strike that appropriate balance.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, speaking to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, rejected claims that surveillance makes Americans safer [Politico’s Tal Kopan]. He emphasized that “the greatest threat should not be from our own government prying into every single one of our secrets with no accountability whatsoever.”

The Washington Post’s The Switch (Barton Gellman) offers additional background and evidence, based on documents and confidential interviews, demonstrating that the NSA accessed data between Google and Yahoo data centers.

The Boston Globe (Michael B. Farrell) covers how six former employees of the NSA have launched a new commercial version of the NSA database, noting how the company is “benefiting from the exposure the [NSA] scandal brought to the sophisticated technology that is used by the government — and that is now available to businesses.”

Outside the U.S., Brazil’s government acknowledged yesterday that its intelligence services spied on U.S. and other diplomats in 2003 and 2004 [Wall Street Journal’s Tom Murphy]. First reported in Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the surveillance was “modest in scope and technique” and did not involve sophisticated electronic surveillance. A statement from Brazil’s Office of Institutional Security responded that the “operations were undertaken in strict accordance with Brazilian legislation and in strict defense of national interests.”

The Independent (Duncan Campbell et al.) covers claims that the U.K. spy agency, GCHQ has maintained surveillance operations in Germany even after the U.S. pulled out. Aerial photographs of the British embassy in Berlin reveal a potential eavesdropping base. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson declined to respond last evening, stating, “We don’t comment on intelligence questions.”

The EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding has told Greek newspaper Naftemporiki that the EU needs to create its own intelligence service by 2020 as a “counterweight” to the NSA [EU Observer’s Andrew Rettman].

And the U.S. and EU announced yesterday fresh rounds of trade negotiations over the next two months, “setting up a test on whether the nascent talks can overcome the political fallout from U.S. spying revelations and other sensitive topics” [Wall Street Journal’s William Mauldin].

Drones

The Express Tribune (Asad Kharal) has learned that Pakistan’s UN office has issued an alert to its employees, fearing a reprisal following Friday’s drone strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban chief.

A statement from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said [CNN]:

A drone strike under these circumstances has harmed the dialogue and peace efforts of the government. But we believe that we will not … allow the dialogue and peace efforts to get derailed.

The statement added, “Diplomatic efforts will be continued to stop these attacks.”

The ruling party in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province has passed a resolution threatening to block NATO supply lines through the region by November 20 unless the U.S. halts its drone strikes in the region [New York Times’ Declan Walsh and Ismail Khan].

Iran

The Wall Street Journal (Farnaz Fassihi) and Washington Post (Ali Akbar Dareini) cover the largest anti-U.S. demonstrations in years in Tehran yesterday, marking the anniversary of the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover. The White House played down the protests, with spokesperson Jay Carney stating that “the vast majority of Iranians would prefer a better relationship with the West…including the economic benefits of rejoining the international community, to the current status quo” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

Egypt

As noted in yesterday’s News Roundup, ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s trial has been adjourned until January 8, 2014. The Guardian (Patrick Kingsley) covers the chaos during yesterday’s hearing, with the court being forced twice to adjourn the proceedings amidst uproar.

The Economist writes that the “relative calm” outside the courtroom “reflects diminishing turnout by Brotherhood supporters, whose months of protest have failed to gain much traction among the wider public” and “is also evidence of a decision by police to lighten the heavy hand that has caused so much bloodshed in recent months.”

The New York Times editorial board notes that Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach in Egypt “seemed to go further than necessary or prudent to make common cause with the authoritarian generals.” The editorial warns that the Egyptian constitution is “still a work in progress” and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood raises concern “for an inclusive political system,” thus urging the U.S. to be clear about differences with Egypt, “especially on what the word democracy means.”

The Washington Post editorial board similarly argues that Kerry’s claims that Egypt is headed toward democracy is to “overlook the reality,” including the unfair trials for political prisoners, the shutdown of opposition media, and the rigging of the constitution. The editorial notes that “Mr. Kerry’s embrace of the regime’s empty promises of democracy only makes him appear foolish — or, perhaps, as cynical as the generals.”

Saudi Arabia

The New York Times (Michael R Gordon), Wall Street Journal (Ellen Knickmeyer) and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung) have further details on the two hour meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi’s King Abdullah, reported in yesterday’s News Roundup.

In a press conference following the meeting, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated “it’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others.” John Kerry hailed the U.S.-Saudi ties, stating that the “relationship is strategic, it is enduring, and it covers a wide range of bilateral and regional issues.”

Saudi Arabia’s former chief of intelligence, Prince Turki spoke to the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about, among other issues, the UN Security Council seat, Iran and Syria. Turki stated that “Syria is definitely an issue where American policy has been wrong.”

Syria

The New York Times (Somini Sengupta) covers UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts toward convening the peace talks on Syria despite the numerous difficulties in bringing together the various stakeholders.

And senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia and UN met in Geneva earlier this morning as part of a series of meetings aimed at building momentum for the proposed second round of peace negotiations [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Alan Cowell].

Other developments

The Hill’s Brendan Sasso notes that according to a former senior official, senior military officials may decide to remove the NSA director’s authority over the U.S. Cyber Command, following Keith Alexander’s step down next spring. The decision to split power reflects “growing concern over the power of the NSA director and a shortage of oversight of the position” as well as the “growing importance of cyberattacks in military operations.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 45,000 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, has urged the creation of a new class of armed TSA officers, in the aftermath of Friday’s LAX shooting [Los Angeles Times’ Kate Linthicum and Kate Mather].

The Washington Post (Sari Horwitz) reports that Attorney General Eric Holder criticized the pace of the Guantanamo Bay military commission trials during a news conference yesterday. Holder added that he was right to have recommended that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other suspects be tried before civilian courts in New York.

Vice President Biden has scheduled visits to Japan, China and South Korea next month as part of President Obama’s “pivot” to the region, reports The Hill’s Julian Pecquet.

In an op-ed in Politico, Ret. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton and Ret. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba have called for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation and detention, arguing that the U.S. “cannot truly disown torture until it owns it.”

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May has defended the current system for dealing with terror suspects as “strong and sustainable,” after a suspect subjected to an order restricting his movements absconded from a London mosque disguised under a burka [BBC].

Reuters (Mohammed Ghobari) reports that a ceasefire between Yemeni Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, following violence that killed at least 100 combatants and civilians, appeared to be failing after Sunnis reported a resumption of fighting yesterday.

A UN-led team of special envoys welcomed the announced ceasefire between the M23 rebel group and the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the “first and necessary step to peace” [UN News Centre].

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).