News Roundup and Notes: November 26, 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.

Guantanamo Bay

The Associated Press (Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo) reports that in a “risky gamble,” the CIA turned some Guantanamo Bay prisoners into double agents in the early years following 9/11, according to current and former U.S. officials. The secret program was carried out at Guantanamo at a location referred to as Penny Lane.

The New York Times editorial notes the “little-noticed but positive move” in the Senate last Thursday, which gave the President “new leeway to move toward closing the prison.” However, even if the NDAA is approved in December, the editorial warns “it will be a struggle to preserve the Guantanamo provisions in negotiations on a final bill with the Republican-led House.”

Iran

The Obama administration is “mounting an aggressive campaign to head off new congressional sanctions against Iran” [Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee and Peter Nicholas]. Speaking in San Francisco yesterday, President Obama addressed his critics, stating:

Huge challenges remain. But we cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.

However, several lawmakers remain skeptical. Concerns about the deal with Iran have been expressed by, among others, Sen. Lindsey Graham [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor [Politico’s Lucy Mccalmont]; and House Intelligence Committee Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers who said that he was not informed about the secret high-level talks between U.S. and Iran  [The Hill’s Mario Trujillo]. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared less committed to renewed sanctions, stating yesterday that he will “take a look at [the deal] to see if we need stronger sanctions” [Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski]. And The Hill (Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb) reports that key lawmakers are preparing a bipartisan bill that would increase sanctions if Iran does not dismantle its program within the six months timeframe.

The Washington Post (Scott Wilson) covers how Obama’s low approval ratings “presents a particular set of challenges for his diplomacy with Iran.” And the New York Times (Mark Landler) reports that the Iran developments, combined with the announcement of the dates for the Syrian peace talks, demonstrates that diplomacy “has once again become the centerpiece of American foreign policy.”

Under the interim agreement, EU sanctions against Iran could begin easing as early as next month or January, according to EU foreign affairs spokesperson Michael Mann [Al Jazeera America]. While Iranians “see economic promise in [the] nuclear accord” [Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian], experts warn that the easing of sanctions “will do little to lift [Iran’s] crippled economy” [NBC News’ Ali Weinberg and Erin McClam].

The Washington Post (Robert F. Worth) covers the “growing rift” between U.S. and Saudi Arabia, heightened by the agreement reached with Iran. Even so, yesterday, Saudi Arabia cautiously welcomed the Geneva deal, stating that the “agreement could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear program, if there are good intentions” [AFP].

Meanwhile, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli team will be arriving in the U.S. to discuss the deal with Iran [CNN’s Reza Sayah et al.]. While Reuters (Jeffrey Heller) reports that Israelis appear “more accepting than their leader” of the diplomatic deal with Iran.

In the media, Dennis Ross writes that the nuclear deal is neither a “breakthrough” nor an “abject surrender,” but “should be seen for what it is: ‘a cap for a cap,’ with a limited rollback on each side for the next six months” [Politico Magazine]. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius argues that the success of Obama’s “secret diplomacy” with Iran shows “the immense leverage the United States still has when it uses its diplomatic tools wisely and stealthily.”

In an opinion in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens argues, “Never in the field of global diplomacy has so much been given away by so many for so little.” And in an op-ed in the New York Times, Roger Cohen notes that like the U.S. has done in the recent past, Israel will have “to adapt to a world where its power is unmatched but no longer determinant.”

Surveillance

The Sydney Morning Herald (Philip Dorling) reported yesterday that Singapore and South Korea played an integral role in helping the U.S. and Australia intercept undersea telecommunications across Asia, according to documents received from Edward Snowden. And Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published a map that identifies and confirms this telecommunications interception. Malaysia has summoned Singapore’s envoy over this report, which stated that Indonesia and Malaysia had been targets for decades [BBC].

The New York Times (Nicole Perlroth and John Markoff) reports on how the NSA was able to collect information from Google and Yahoo’s data centers by bypassing the companies and targeting their  “weak spot — the fiber-optic cables that connect data centers around the world that are owned by companies like…Level 3 Communications.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich repeat their calls for bringing the NSA’s surveillance program to an end. And Chris Finan argues that “it’s time for civilian management of our surveillance programs” [Politico Magazine]. Finan notes the “palpable disconnect between the broad surveillance some have come to believe is necessary to keep the country safe and the broad perspective needed to design and implement programs in ways that are consistent with our national—and, increasingly, global—interests and values.” 

Syria

As covered in yesterday’s News Roundup, the Geneva II peace conference on Syria is scheduled for January 22, 2014, with world powers aiming to build on the momentum of the Iran deal [AP’s John Heilprin and Zeina Karam]. UN special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi hailed the development as a “huge opportunity for peace that shouldn’t be wasted” [Reuters’ Stephanie Nebehay].

Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the announcement, but noted:

We are well aware that the obstacles on the road to a political solution are many, and we will enter the Geneva conference on Syria with our eyes wide open.

And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated this morning [Reuters]:

Participation of Iran in Geneva 2 is in our view an important contribution to the resolution of the problem. We have said all along that if Iran is invited, we will participate without any preconditions.

Ahead of the conference, Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher covers the “series of failed government efforts to forge regional truces,” which “underscores the deep mistrust” between the groups.

Piotr Zalewski reports that U.S. influence in the Syrian conflict continues to fade as Islamist rebels unite  [Time]. Most recently, seven Islamist groups united on Friday as the Islamic Front, in “a major blow to the Western-backed Syrian Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which have already been weakened by internecine strife and clashes with al-Qaeda affiliates.”

And Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Colum Lynch) questions whether Iran is “the cause or the solution to Syria’s humanitarian crisis,” with some experts speculating that “Tehran is not going to desert Assad completely.”

Drones

Washington Post’s Greg Miller reports that the CIA “remains behind most drone strikes,” even six months after President Obama signaled his intention to move the drone program to the Department of Defense. Despite talks between senior CIA and Pentagon officials, the move has not yet been made.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has unveiled its own domestic drones [Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Haq Nawaz Khan]. According to military officials, these drones are only to be used for surveillance purposes and will not be armed. And BBC reports that Pakistani activists have blocked the main NATO supply route used to deliver provisions to troops in Afghanistan in a protest against U.S. drone strikes. 

Afghanistan

The White House has announced that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has “outlined new conditions for signing the [Bilateral Security Agreement]” and “indicated he is not prepared to sign the BSA promptly” in his meeting with National Security Adviser Susan Rice. In response, Rice emphasized that “without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.”

The New York Times (Rod Nordland), Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov) and Washington Post (Tim Craig and Karen DeYoung) have more details on this development.

Egypt

The State Department has voiced concern over Egypt’s new law on protests, “which imposes restrictions on Egyptians’ ability to assemble peacefully and express their views, does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt’s democratic transition forward.”

In the first application of the country’s new law, Egyptian security used tear gas against university students who staged a protest against the restrictions, in defiance of the law [Al Jazeera America].

Other developments

The Washington Post (Sari Horwitz) reports that according to U.S. officials, the Justice Department is very unlikely to bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as the department would subsequently need to prosecute U.S. news organizations and journalists.

Israel has approved the construction of 800 new settler homes in the West Bank, amidst concern that such moves will “derail the peace process with Palestine” [Al Jazeera America].

CNN reports on the continuing clashes in Libya between government troops and militia, which left at least nine dead yesterday.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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