News Roundup and Notes: December 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.

NSA surveillance

ICYMI, yesterday, the Washington Post (Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani) reported that the NSA is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world. This allows the agency to “track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.” While an intelligence lawyer claims that location data is obtained by methods “tuned to be looking outside the United States,” the NSA acquires substantial location data of domestic cellphones “incidentally.” Check out Just Security’s Jennifer Granick and Thomas Earnest’s post from last night covering the latest revelations of NSA surveillance.

The Washington Post’s The Switch (Andrea Peterson) questions the NSA’s position that “obviously there is no Fourth Amendment expectation in communications metadata.”

And the New York Times (Nicole Perlroth and Vindu Goel) covers how internet firms are stepping up efforts to prevent government spying. Microsoft is the latest company to enhance encryption features to shield its data centers from surveillance.

Afghanistan

According to a senior U.S. official, the U.S. is trying to “quietly” find ways “out of this fix,” as the uncertainty over the Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan continues [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan and Tim Craig]. Taking the same position as Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested yesterday that the signature of an Afghan leader other than President Hamid Karzai might suffice.

The issue of who has the authority to speak for the sovereign nation of Afghanistan, I suppose the lawyers can figure that out … Whether it’s the minister of defense or the president, someone who has the authority to sign on behalf of Afghanistan … I suspect that would fulfill the kind of commitment we need.

However, Karzai’s spokesperson, Aimal Faizi dismissed these suggestions:

You cannot get a bilateral agreement signed between two states if one of the states still has its conditions for its signing. … As long as Afghan demands are not accepted, President Karzai will not authorize any minister to sign it.

CNN’s Security Clearance (Jennifer Rizzo and Shirley Henry) reports that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey indicated yesterday that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is a “possibility,” although he has not yet been told to plan for this “zero option.”

And NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the urgency to reach an agreement with Afghanistan, stating, “time is of the essence” in order to finalize a NATO status of forces agreement [New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin].

Guantánamo Bay

The Miami Herald (Carol Rosenberg and Lazaro Gamio) provides a tally of hunger strikers at the prison from the time the protest was acknowledged by officials.

Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that the U.S. has transferred two detainees to their home country of Algeria, rejecting their concerns of being tortured or mistreated upon their return. According to the Pentagon statement, the inmate population at Guantánamo now stands at 162.

And a Sudanese detainee, who previously pleaded guilty before a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, is scheduled to be sent home shortly as he has finished serving the required portion of his sentence [New York Times’ Charlie Savage].

China

Following Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday, Biden claimed he had been “very direct” about the U.S. position on China’s new air defense identification zone, which has “to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region” [AP].

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei stated today [Al Jazeera]:

During the talks, the Chinese side repeated its principled position, stressing that the Chinese move accorded with international law and practice and that the US side ought to take an objective and fair attitude and respect it.

The New York Times (Mark Landler), Wall Street Journal (Peter Nicholas and Jeremy Page) and Washington Post (David Nakamura) have more details.

And Foreign Policy (Dan Lamothe and Yochi Dreazen) covers how the Obama administration appears to have changed course on China’s air defense zone. While officials “expressed disapproval for the way in which the Asian power has flexed its muscles,” they have also indicated that the U.S. may tolerate the zone for now. For instance, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey stated, “It wasn’t the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing…It was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign airspace of China.”

Department of Defense

The Pentagon is set to cut its budget by $1 billion from 2014 to 2019 [CNN’s Security Clearance’s Jennifer Liberto]. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed his decision, stating [DoD News]:

With the Pentagon confronting historically deep and steep, and abrupt spending reductions after a decade of significant budget growth, there is a clear need and an opportunity … to pare back overhead and streamline headquarters across this department.

On the issue of sexual assaults in the military, in an op-ed in The Hill, Penny Nance and Amber Barno argue that “removing military commanders’ authority to contribute to the process of sexual assault cases discredits their influence to lead their soldiers, weakens them as leaders on the battlefield, and, therefore, weakens the entire military force.”

Syria

UN Special Coordinator for Syria, Sigrid Kaag has provided new details on the UN-OPCW plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons [UN News Centre]. According to the plan, the weapons will be transported to the Syrian port city of Latakia, shipped on commercial vessels provided by some member states, and finally loaded onto a U.S. ship to be destroyed at sea using hydrolysis. Kaag acknowledged concerns about the operation, stating, “It’s a highly complex exercise, it is unprecedented and it takes place in an active war zone.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the U.S. is seeking to better understand Syria’s Islamist rebels. Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters, “I think it’s worth knowing whether these groups have any intent whatsoever to be moderate and inclusive, or whether they … from the start intend to be radical.”

The New York Times (Eric Schmitt) covers how the U.S. “is stepping up its online efforts to combat violent extremists’ recruiting of English speakers.” This program follows reports that dozens of Americans have attempted to travel to Syria to join the rebel forces in the country’s civil war.

And according to U.S. and European intelligence and security officials, jihadist fighters from Europe who went to Syria to join extremist rebels have begun returning home, posing a potential risk of terrorism in their home countries [Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman et al.].

Iran

House members expressed concern about Iran’s ability to enrich uranium under the interim agreement, following a classified House briefing with Wendy Sherman, the U.S.’s lead negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program [Reuters’ Timothy Gardner].

The Washington Post (Dina ElBoghdady and Steven Mufson) reports that while the interim deal promises modest sanctions relief, “there is no letup in the new requirement that companies whose stock trades on U.S. exchanges keep track of even the tiniest interactions with the Islamic republic.”

And the New York Times (Thomas Erdbrink) covers how Iran is taking its “charm offensive to the Persian Gulf.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been traveling in the region, including visiting the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, “trying to mend ties with Arab neighbors, Sunni nations that harbor deep suspicions of Shiite Iran.”

Israel-Palestine

U.S. officials have stated that Secretary of State John Kerry will present an outline of a West Bank security plan in meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders today, as part of the U.S.-brokered peace negotiations [Al Jazeera].

Foreign Policy’s Ronen Bergman reports on Israeli intelligence agency Mossad’s campaign to counter its “most dangerous foes.” According to the report, yesterday’s assassination of Hezbollah commander Hassan Lakkis is “yet another in the latest in a long series of assassinations of leading figures in what Israeli intelligence calls the ‘Radical Front,’ which comprises two countries – Syria and Iran – and three organizations: Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.”

Other developments

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans consider that protecting the U.S. from terrorists is the top priority, with 83 percent of those questioned holding that opinion, while only 18% considered “promoting democracy in other nations” a priority [UPI].

Fox News (Catherine Herridge) reports that the CIA personnel who testified this week on the Benghazi attack “provided new evidence that it was premeditated, telling lawmakers that the deadly mortar strike on the CIA annex began within minutes of a rescue team’s arrival.”

The Washington Post (Craig Whitlock) reports that the defense contractor, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, the subject of one of the biggest fraud investigations in the Navy, reportedly gained lucrative business “despite the dumping violations and poor performance.”

The UN is set to vote on a French resolution today, which would authorize African and French troops to stabilize the situation in the Central African Republic, as violence in the country escalates [AFP].

BBC reports on a series of attacks at Yemen’s defense ministry today, which have left at least 29 dead. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks as yet.

Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for attacks in northern Iraq that have killed at least 7 people [Al Jazeera America].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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