News Roundup and Notes: December 9, 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

The Guardian [James Ball] reports that the NSA and its British counter-part, GCHQ have infiltrated the online community of video games. According to documents received from Edward Snowden, the agencies have collected online chats between gamers and deployed agents into the virtual realms of World of Warcraft and Second Life.

A coalition of tech giants, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, has launched a campaign for the reform of global government surveillance [The Hill’s Kate Tummarello]. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, the companies urge the U.S. to take the lead, arguing:

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.

The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) covers how “morale has taken a hit” at the NSA following leaks by Edward Snowden, according to former officials who have expressed disappointment that President Obama has not visited the agency to show his support.

NPR reports (Terri Schultz) that Edward Snowden may testify before a civil liberties committee of the European Parliament later this month. Members of the committee are expected to vote in favor of holding a videoconference with Snowden despite opposition from some British Conservatives.

And the New York Times (Brian X. Chen) reports that according to an investigation conducted by Senator Edward J. Markey, cellphone carriers responded to at least 1.1 million requests from law enforcement agencies last year, seeking information on caller data for use in investigations. According to the findings, the agencies “received information from 9,000 so-called tower dumps, in which the agencies were granted access to data from all the phones that connected to a cell site during a specified period of time.”

Syria

ICYMI, Seymour M. Hersh has published a report in the London Review of Books alleging that President Obama “omitted important intelligence” and “presented assumptions as facts” when making his case that the al-Assad regime was responsible for August’s chemical weapons attack. Hersh reports that the U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence that al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, the al-Nusra Front had “mastered the mechanics of creating [the nerve agent] sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.” However, he claims, “the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.” DNI spokesperson Shawn Turner responded, “Any suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence about a nonexistent alternative explanation is simply false” [Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray]. And Michael Calderone provides a backstory on why the New Yorker and Washington Post passed on Hersh’s Syria report [Huffington Post].

According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence and counter-terror sources, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed possible Russian-Israeli intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda forces in Syria during their meeting last month.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra has sent Al Jazeera exclusive footage of what it claims is evidence of a Syrian government drone that the group shot down while it was flying over Aleppo. The Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher and Rima Abushakra) reports that regime forces have recaptured a strategic town north of Damascus. And the Washington Post (Ben Van Heuvelen) covers how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “is also gaining ground in Iraq.”

Iran

ICYMI, this weekend, President Obama defended the Iran deal at the Brookings Saban Forum [Politico’s Reid J. Epstein] [full transcript here]. Obama argued:

…you have to compare the approach that we’re taking now with the alternatives. The idea that Iran, given everything we know about their history, would just continue to get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats, and ultimately just say, okay, we give in — I think does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime … They are going to have to have a path in which they feel that there is a dignified resolution to this issue.

Obama stated that he did not consider the likelihood of a final deal with Iran to be greater than “50/50,” but noted that “we have to try.” He also acknowledged “significant tactical disagreements” with Israel, but confirmed “there is a constancy in trying to reach the same goal.”

Speaking at the Forum on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is willing to give diplomacy a chance as long as it is “coupled with powerful sanctions and a credible military threat” [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]. While Israeli President Shimon Peres stated yesterday that he is willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani [AFP].

Concerns over the interim deal continue to be expressed. Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman has told Haaretz (Chemi Shalev) that he is “embarrassed by how [the U.S.] government has accepted the threats of blackmail by the Iranians against even discussing new sanctions.” Three Senate committee heads, Tim Johnson, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, have written a letter to DNI James Clapper requesting an “assessment of the effects, if any, on both Iran and our P5+1 partners, of action by Congress relative to new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran while the negotiations … are ongoing” [Politico’s Burgess Everett]. And Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” that if Iran fails to comply with the interim agreement requirements, “sanctions are going to start flying out of Congress” [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]. Schiff maintained, however, “I don’t think we should take steps that aren’t necessary right now.”

Meanwhile, Iranian state media reported that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited Iran’s heavy water production plant at Arak this weekend. Experts from Iran and the P5+1 are scheduled to meet in Vienna today to discuss the implementation of the interim deal with U.N. inspectors [Al Jazeera America].

Guantánamo Bay

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has written to the last British resident inside the detention center, Shaker Aamer, reassuring him of efforts to secure his release [The Guardian’s Mark Townsend]. Aamer has told his lawyer that there are now 29 Guantánamo hunger strikers, including him, with 19 being force-fed.

Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg reports that the U.S. military is retracting a claim made to CBS’s “60 Minutes” that Guantánamo guards suffer nearly twice as much Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as combat troops.

And the New York Times editorial labelled last week’s involuntary transfer of two Guantánamo detainees to Algeria “a perverse move.”

Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CBS’s “Face the Nation” (Margaret Brennan) yesterday that a total pullout of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 due to the lack of a Bilateral Security Agreement was a “real possibility.”

The New York Times (Alissa J. Rubin) covers how Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reached out to forge closer ties with Iran, in a possible move “to tweak the Western allies he has been at loggerheads with in recent weeks.”

The Washington Post’s Tim Craig reports that construction on Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry headquarters has stalled as the U.S. government has run out of money for the project. Reportedly, the U.S. has already spent about $107 million on the headquarters in Kabul.

The Associated Press has obtained unclassified excerpts of a top-secret Pentagon study, which recommends American-made rotorcraft for Afghanistan’s security forces, in an apparent contradiction to claims of U.S. military officials who insisted that the study recommended the need to buy Russian helicopters.

In an opinion in Politico Magazine, John Paul Schnapper-Casteras and Lawrence Korb argue that “it’s time to play hardball” with Karzai. They write, “If Washington has any chance of de-escalating the situation, it should look to the lessons of negotiating a similar agreement in Iraq and prepare in earnest for the ‘zero option’.”

Pakistan

Al Jazeera reports that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this morning “as part of an effort to defuse tensions over controversial U.S. drone strikes and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.”

Israel-Palestine

Speaking at the Brookings Saban Forum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians’ acceptance of the existence of a Jewish state is the “minimal requirement for peace” [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]. He claimed, “I’m willing to make even harder decisions to achieve peace.”

And Secretary of State John Kerry expressed commitment to the peace process, stating:

Never before – ever – has the United States conducted such an in-depth analysis of Israel’s security requirements that arise from the potential of a two-state solution.

East China Sea

In response to China’s expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone (“ADIZ”) last month, South Korea has also announced a decision to expand its air defense zone in the region [CNN’s Saeed Ahmed]. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, “We appreciate the ROK’s efforts to pursue this action in a responsible, deliberate fashion by prior consultations with the United States and its neighbors, including Japan and China.”

In an opinion in the Washington Post, Victor D. Cha argues that “the recent Chinese muscle-flexing makes the U.S. pivot only more welcome in Asia” and covers how Washington can use the latest controversy to its advantage, including by pressing “China into agreeing to some form of crisis-management mechanism among the four countries in Northeast Asia.”

Other developments

Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris reports on the split between the White House and Attorney General Eric Holder over the nomination of John Carlin to lead the Justice Department’s National Security Division. According to former officials, Holder “strenuously” objected to Carlin’s nomination and “several former law enforcement and national security officials [decried] the nomination as an act of undue political influence over law enforcement decisions.”

The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian) reports on the CIA’s “NOC” program spurred by 9/11, under which agency officers were given “non-official cover,” often posing as business executives,” to gather intelligence on terrorists. However, according to current and former U.S. officials, the program “was a colossal flop.”

House Homeland Security Committee chair Mike McCaul and Intel Committee’s Rep. Adam Schiff told CNN’s “State of the Union” (Candy Crowley) that the threat of a terrorist attack against the U.S. still exists, but that attacks are likely to take place on a smaller scale than 9/11.

Eugene R. Fidell writes in the Slate that “the fight over prosecuting sexual assault in the military is really over an antiquated model of commander control.” Fidell argues that the issue of “civilian control of the military … explains the ferocity of the military’s opposition to [Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s] reform, and makes it all the more critical that supporters of her proposal stand their ground.”

The Associated Press reports that an adviser to the DNI has resigned following revelations that he has worked as a paid consultant since 2010 to a Chinese technology company that the U.S. has deemed an espionage threat.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated yesterday that fighters in the Central African Republic must comply with disarmament starting Monday, and warned that France would resort to force if necessary [Washington Post’s Emmanuel Braun and Paul-Marin Ngoupana].

BBC covers a joint report of the Overseas Development Institute and the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, which details how aid agencies paid Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants to access areas under their control during the 2011 famine in the country.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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