News Roundup and Notes: November 6, 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

In a joint press conference with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to ease concerns about NSA spying, in addition to discussing political and military cooperation [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung]. When asked about U.S. spying, Kerry stated:

We are all in the effort…to strike the right balance between protecting our citizens and, obviously, the privacy of all of our citizens…The President of the United States has ordered a complete review of all of our activity, and we will work very closely with our friends in order to make certain that the road ahead is one that is understood and that is mutually agreed upon.

As German and U.S. officials are set to meet this week, Reuters (Steve Holland and Mark Hosenball) reports that a senior U.S. administration official has said that the countries “are not currently talking about an across-the-board ‘no spy’ agreement,” but are working toward “updated understandings.” A former U.S. official has said that the most likely result is an agreement not to spy on leaders or on companies for economically competitive reasons.

Following allegations of British spying in Berlin, Germany called the U.K. ambassador to the German Foreign Ministry yesterday to explain claims that the U.K. was using its embassy to spy on the German government [The Guardian’s Philip Oltermann et al.]. A German foreign office statement said that the head of its Europe division “had asked for a statement in response to the current reports in the British media and pointed out that intercepting communication from within diplomatic buildings represented a violation of international law.”

The Guardian has live updates on today’s high court challenge brought by David Miranda, partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, over his nine-hour detention in August under U.K.’s anti-terror legislation. Miranda’s lawyers allege that his detention was illegal and a misuse of powers to obtain journalistic material.

Spanish newspaper El Mundo has said it will hand over documents that claim to show that Spain was a target of NSA surveillance as part of the preliminary inquiry opened by the country’s prosecutor’s office into whether a crime was committed and whether a formal investigation should be opened [AP].

Lawmakers in Brazil have called for a public hearing over claims that the Brazilian government spied on foreign diplomats [Wall Street Journal’s Tom Murphy]. And amidst claims that a Brazilian spy was transferred after being discovered passing intelligence information to the U.S., lawmakers are set to call Brazil’s spy agency head to explain the allegations, according to a statement of the country’s Congressional Foreign Relations Commission [Wall Street Journal’s John Lyons].

In an interview on CNN yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that the Obama administration was already having “conversations” about NSA’s collection of metadata prior to Edward Snowden’s leaks (Evan Perez and Leigh Ann Caldwell). Holder said that following the leaks, “the conversation is a more public one.”

A National Commission panel tasked with reviewing U.S. intelligence community programs has found that intelligence agencies’ research and development efforts are “disorganized and unfocussed”, as reported in the New York Times (David E Sanger). The report concluded that the U.S. was losing its technological superiority over its rivals.

And according to Apple’s first transparency report, the U.S. asked Apple for data on between 2,000 and 3,000 users during the first half of 2013 [The Hill’s Kate Tummarello]. The report stated, “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.” It also claimed that requests for stored photos or emails were only made in “very rare cases” and these requests were considered “very carefully,” with account content provided “in extremely limited circumstances.”

Syria

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Colum Lynch) covers the Syrian government’s plan for the transfer of chemical weapons abroad, which has been presented to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). According to a confidential account, the plan includes “120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.” The extensive request for equipment has caused alarm among Western diplomats. Albania is the “most likely destination,” with the U.S. likely to supply the Albanian government with mobile destruction units to assist in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. These proposals have not yet been made public.

Meanwhile, CNN’s Security Clearance (Barbara Starr) reports that the U.S. is examining new intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not have fully declared its chemical weapons stockpile, although one official has noted that U.S. conclusions on this issue are not yet definitive. A National Security Council spokesperson issued a statement last evening, saying, “We continue to review and assess the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s declaration to the OPCW.”

Al Jazeera also covers the concerns about the accuracy of the Syrian government’s declaration. U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power stated that experts are examining the “extremely technical” document, noting:

We obviously bring skepticism born of years of dealing with this regime, years of obfuscation in other contexts, and of course a lot of broken promises within the context of this current war…You will certainly hear from us in the event that we detect non-compliance or we detect significant discrepancies.

Diplomats from the U.S., Russia and UN were unable to agree on a date for the Geneva II peace conference on Syria yesterday [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Rick Gladstone]. UN special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters, “We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year.” Brahimi stated that an acute cause for delaying the process was the opposition, which remains “divided” and is facing “all sorts of problems.” He also acknowledged that the involvement of Iran in the negotiations is “one of the issues that will be discussed further.”

Al Jazeera America reports that the OPCW has so far raised approximately $13.5 million for the Syria mission, which is only enough to fund its work through the end of November. The U.S. has so far been the biggest contributor to the fund.

Drones

Despite White House plans leaked earlier this year to shift U.S. drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department, an exclusive report from Foreign Policy (Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris) claims that “six months later, the so-called migration of those operations has stalled, and it is now unlikely to happen anytime soon.” According to the report, “the complexity of the issue, the distinct operational and cultural differences between the Pentagon and CIA and the bureaucratic politics of it all has forced officials on all sides to recognize transferring drone operations from the Agency to the Defense Department represents, for now, an unattainable goal.”

[Check out Just Security’s Ryan Goodman’s post this morning on whether the transfer of drones is on a “slow track, just stalled, or terminal.”]

Amidst growing outrage against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, the country’s Air Defense demonstrated its anti-drone technology yesterday by successfully bringing down a drone during a military exercise in Punjab province [Times of India].

Meanwhile, senior officials in Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense have confirmed to The News (Ahmad Noorani) that the figures of civilian casualties in drone strikes reported to parliament were “wrong and fabricated.” A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense responded that the Ministry “will come up with the actual situation in the next few days.”

Israel-Palestine 

The Haaretz (Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid) reports that according to sources, the three and a half hours meeting between the Israel and Palestine negotiating teams yesterday ended in a row. The Palestinians claims that Israeli officials are falsely representing Palestinian complicity in Israel’s recent settlement expansion plans. However, a senior Israeli official stated that both sides have expressed commitment to engaging in direct negotiations for nine months.

Secretary of State John Kerry is set to meet leaders on both sides this week, and has stated [BBC]:

I come here without any illusions about the difficulties, but I come here determined to work.

The New York Times (Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren) has more on Kerry’s efforts to “nudge peace talks along.”

And the Washington Post (William Booth and Ruth Eglash) reports that despite the current efforts toward a two-state solution, “a vocal faction in [the Israeli government] is, more openly than ever, opposing the very idea of a Palestinian state — and putting forward its own plans to take, rather than give away, territory.”

Iran

Israeli and Iranian officials reportedly participated in a meeting last month to discuss a proposed conference on a nuclear-free Middle East [Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon]. However, Israeli officials have downplayed the significance of the meeting as “completely procedural,” with no direct contact between the countries.

In an exclusive interview with France 24, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated:

I believe it is possible to reach an agreement during this meeting, but I can only talk for our side, I cannot talk for the other side.

Ahead of the next round of negotiations this week, Zarif stated “we’ve come very far in the last three rounds, so we need to make a few more steps.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has confirmed that the U.S. will continue with its missile-defense plans for Europe irrespective of improved relations with Iran, which is one of the key threats that the plans are designed to counter [Wall Street Journal’s Patryk Wasilewski].

Other developments

In a keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that “significant change across every aspect of our defense enterprise” is necessary in the current economic climate. He noted  “the stark choices and tradeoffs in military capabilities that will be required if sequester-level cuts persist,” but also identified this as an opportunity “to make changes and reforms.” Politico’s Philip Ewing has more on this story.

The Hill’s Jeremy Herb reports that a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), introduced a bill yesterday that would amend the rules governing sexual assault victims in the course of the military’s pre-trial court proceedings. Under the bill, victims would no longer be questioned during the pre-trial process.

The Atlantic (Garrett Epps) covers the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Bond v. United States, involving the federal prosecution of a jealous wife under the Chemical Weapons Convention for using caustic chemicals to smear her husband’s lover’s house. The article notes that conservatives are using the “seeming absurdity of the prosecution to mount an attack on [Congress’] Treaty Power,” with the conservative justices also voicing misgivings about foreign treaties.

An Australian national and former Guantanamo Bay detainee has asked a federal military court to throw out an earlier conviction for supporting terrorists [Politico’s Tal Kopan]. Held at Guantanamo for five and a half years, he claims he was tortured throughout his detention and pleaded guilty in a “desperate attempt” to be released.

Reuters’ (Angus McDowall) reports that according to analysts, Saudi Arabia remains “unconvinced by Kerry’s show of U.S. goodwill” and more remains to be done to repair U.S.-Saudi ties.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power welcomed the announcement of armed rebel group M23 to end hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, covered in yesterday’s News Roundup. Power urged, however, that “all armed groups are neutralized and that the DRC government establishes control over all its territory and provides security to all Congolese.” The New York Times (Nicholas Kulish), Wall Street Journal (Nicholas Bariyo) and Washington Post (Sudarsan Raghavan) cover the end of the M23’s hostilities.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security announced the capture of two operatives from al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan yesterday during a raid in Kabul [The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio].

A special court in Bangladesh has convicted more than 300 former members of the country’s security forces as part of a mass verdict over the 2009 military mutiny, with 152 soldiers sentenced to death [Al Jazeera].

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani revealed in his recently published book that President Obama told Pakistan in 2009 that he would “nudge” India toward Kashmir negotiations, in lieu of Pakistan ending support to terrorist groups, but the offer was rejected by Islamabad [The Indian Express].

A blast outside a provincial office of China’s Communist Part in the country’s north has killed at least one person [BBC]. No immediate explanation was provided.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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