News Roundup and Notes: December 10, 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. 

NDAA

Yesterday, leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee agreed on a compromise version of the defense authorization legislation in an expedited effort to ensure the bill is passed this year [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb].

On Guantánamo, the bill maintains the prohibition on the transfer of detainees to the United States, but according to aides, will ease restrictions on transfers overseas. On combatting sexual assault, the bill includes significant reforms, such as stripping commanders of their ability to dismiss a finding by a court martial, establishing minimum sentencing guidelines, and adding victim protections in the pre-trial process. However, the bill does not include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposed reforms to take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.

Syria

In Foreign Policy, Eliot Higgins responds to Seymour Hersh’s article, in which he claims that the White House deliberately “omitted important intelligence” and “presented assumptions as facts” when making the case that the al-Assad regime was responsible for August’s chemical weapons attack. In response, Higgins covers the “growing body” of open-source information and evidence, much of which comes from the Syrian military, and which “very strongly suggests that it was Assad’s cronies, not the rebels, who carried out the Aug. 21 attack.” [Check out Just Security’s Ryan Goodman’s post later this morning with his take on Hersh’s story.]

The Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ahmet Uzumcu has warned that “there might be a few days’ delay” in meeting the deadline for removing Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country [Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid]. Uzumcu referred to the difficulties of transporting the weapons out of a war zone as the main reason for expected delays.

On the ground, government forces are reported to have secured the motorway linking Damascus with the city of Homs [BBC]. Iraqi border forces battled gunmen trying to enter the country from neighboring Syria yesterday [New York Times’ Duraid Adnan]. And Spanish newspaper, El Mundo reported today that al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria abducted two Spanish journalists in September [Reuters]. 

Surveillance

CBC News reports that “Canada has set up spying posts and conducted espionage at the request of the [NSA].” CBC has decided not to publish much of the information in the top secret document received from Edward Snowden, dated April of this year, as the information could harm national security.

Over 550 leading authors from 81 countries, including 5 Nobel Prize winners, have condemned the scale of government surveillance and urged the UN to create a bill of digital rights aimed at protecting civil rights in the Internet age [The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor and Nick Hopkins]. They write:

A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.

Advocates for surveillance reform have welcomed the coalition of tech firms’ open letter to Washington – covered in yesterday’s Roundup – as “a major game changer” [The Guardian’s Paul Lewis].

And the New York Times (Nicole Perlroth) reports that according to findings to be released today by FireEye, a computer security company, “computer breaches at the foreign ministries of the Czech Republic, Portugal, Bulgaria, Latvia and Hungary have been traced to Chinese hackers.”

Central African Republic (CAR)

Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog has announced that following French Defence Minister Yves Le Drian’s request for “limited assistance” from the U.S. to support the CAR intervention, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “has directed U.S. AFRICOM to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic, in coordination with France” [DoD News]. The Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous) has more details.

This announcement was followed by a statement from President Obama, urging the citizens of the CAR  to “choose a different path” amid growing sectarian violence, and calling for “calm and peace” [The Hill’s Justin Sink].

The Associated Press reports that two French soldiers have been killed in battle in the CAR. And French President Francois Hollande will be traveling to the country later today.

Iran

In an interview with TIME’s Robin Wright, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has warned that if Congress imposes new sanctions, “The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress.” Zarif noted that “domestic complications” in the U.S. were “no justification” for new sanctions.

Reuters (Timothy Gardner) reports that Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk “are close to agreeing” on new sanctions legislation against Iran, which would take effect if the interim agreement fails. According to a senior Republican Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, the legislation is “an insurance policy to protect against Iranian deception.”

The New York Times editorial warns that any “new penalties would betray [the nuclear] agreement, feed Iranians’ deep mistrust of Americans, deny Mr. Obama negotiating flexibility and, most likely, crush any hope that a diplomatic solution is possible.”

Pew Research/USA Today poll released yesterday has found “limited support” for a nuclear agreement with Iran. The poll revealed that 43% of those questioned disapprove of the nuclear agreement, while 32% approve of the deal.

Israel-Palestine

Ali Gharib covers the “dangerous notion” of “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear crisis in Iran [Daily Beast]. While Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Brookings Saban Forum indicated a link – “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs” – U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro quickly dismissed this connection in an interview yesterday. Shapiro stated:

These two issues concern both Israel’s security and our security and the interests of all the Middle East, that it be a more quiet and stable region. But we do not see any linkage in which we seek to give on one issue and receive on the other.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will be returning to Israel and the West Bank this week. Among other issues, Kerry will discuss progress on Iran and the ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Israel, Jordan and Palestine have signed “a historic water-sharing initiative” at the World Bank yesterday, which comes as the U.S. “continues to push a new effort to forge a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians” [Al Jazeera America].

Pakistan

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other senior officials yesterday and discussed issues of regional security, counter-terrorism, and the NATO ground supply routes through Pakistan [DoD News]. The New York Times (Thom Shanker and Salman Masood) and Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) have more details.

Other developments

A U.S. Federal Appeals court is considering a challenge to Guantánamo’s genital search procedures, which include “flat-hand frisking of groins and buttocks when detainees travel within Guantánamo to meet with attorneys” [McClatchy Washington Bureau’s Michael Doyle].

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has announced that the internal review of the Navy’s ship-supply contracts will be expanded, “in a new sign that overbilling practices discovered in the Pacific could be occurring worldwide” [New York Times’ Christopher Drew And Danielle Ivory].

The Senate approved a House-passed 10-year extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act yesterday, which requires guns to contain enough metal to be picked up by detectors [Politico’s Burgess Everett].

Reuters (Pavel Polityuk) covers the continuing protests in Ukraine, as the U.S. and EU step up efforts to resolve the situation diplomatically. State Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland is in Kiev and has spoken with the leaders of the three main opposition parties. In a phone call with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Vice President Biden underscored the need to “begin a dialogue with opposition leaders on developing a consensus way forward for Ukraine.” And the Washington Post editorial argues that “a negotiated settlement remains strongly in the interest of both sides” and expresses hope that “Western envoys and the youth in the streets will tip [Yanukovych] toward a more rational course.”

China has reportedly expressed “regret” over South Korea’s decision to expand its air defense zone, as tensions over the East China Sea continue [CNN’s Katie Hunt].

BBC reports that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will visit Libya later this month “to assess its uranium stockpiles, amid concerns about fragile security in the country.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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