News Roundup and Notes: December 12, 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

Sveriges Television reports that the NSA has granted Sweden’s National Defense Radio Establishment (FRA) access to Xkeyscore, “one of the most controversial systems in its global mass surveillance” according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Xkeyscore makes it possible to monitor millions worldwide as the system covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” as claimed in the NSA presentation.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander defended his agency’s surveillance program [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. Alexander claimed, “Taking the program off the table from my perspective is absolutely not the right thing to do.” ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt similarly defended the program, stating, “Everybody is singularly focused on ensuring that we comply with the Constitution and the law… Nobody’s been out there attempting to illegally spy on Americans or anyone else” [The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy].

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza covers why Obama won’t reign in the NSA program and takes a detailed look at the historical developments in the intelligence community.

Syria

The Wall Street Journal (Adam Entous and Rima Abushakra) reports that the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria, Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army has been forced to flee the country by Islamist fighters. This turn of events follows the Islamic Front’s takeover of key weapons warehouses, covered in yesterday’s News Roundup, in “the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war.” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest confirmed reports yesterday that the U.S. has “suspended all further deliveries of nonlethal assistance into northern Syria” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. A U.K. Foreign Office spokesperson also stated that while “investigation is under way, we will not be making any deliveries of equipment to the SMC. We intend to resume support as soon as we and the SMC are satisfied the conditions on the ground allow the SMC to take safe delivery of equipment provided” [The Guardian’s Ian Black].

CNN reports that the Turkish Commerce and Customs Ministry announced yesterday that it had temporarily closed its border to Syria due to the escalated fighting between the Syrian opposition groups.

Foreign Policy (Elias Groll) covers Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken’s comments yesterday suggesting that extremism in Syria could help in ending the Syrian crisis. Blinken stated, “The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups. Many of Syria’s neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future.” This, he argued, pointed to a possible “convergence of interests” among world powers to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Thirteen news organizations have written to the Syrian opposition seeking assurances that their reporters will not be kidnapped [New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya].

Guantánamo

A Guantánamo public affairs official has told Al Jazeera (Jason Leopold) that a media blackout on hunger strikes had been put into place because “it’s [the strikers’] desire to draw attention to themselves, and so we’re not going to help them do that.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse covers last week’s decision by a federal appeals court in Ali v. Obama, and argues why we should continue to care about Guantánamo.

Afghanistan

A German district court has rejected a compensation claim by relatives of the Afghan civilians killed in a 2009 NATO bombing in Kunduz, on the grounds that there was “no culpable misconduct” by the German commanding officer [Deutsche Welle].

The Washington Post (Anne Gearan and Ernesto Londoño) reports that the White House is “softening its demand that Afghanistan sign a security agreement by the end of the year or risk a withdrawal of all Americans troops.” On the issue of the Dec. 31 deadline, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters, “Now, if you’re asking me, does that mean that if they sign it on Jan. 10th that’s going to be a huge problem? Probably not. What will be a significant problem is if there is not quick action taken to get this signed.”

An accidental detonation of explosives near the U.S. embassy in Kabul caused panic earlier this morning, but the Afghan National Directorate of Security announced shortly after that the explosion was caused by an electrical fault [Reuters].

Iran

Politico (Seung Min Kin and Burgess Everett) covers the “uncertain outlook for Iran sanctions” in the Senate, noting that “the divergent views expressed after Kerry’s briefing [yesterday] indicate that action isn’t imminent.”

Other developments

According to newly declassified documents, former CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed secret information about the bin Laden operation to “Zero Dark Thirty” scriptwriter Mark Boal during a speech at the CIA headquarters [AP]. Panetta has stated that he was not aware that Boal was in the audience, and had assumed that everyone in the room had clearance to hear his speech.

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to hold another round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today on a West Bank security plan [Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Mitnick].

The New York Times (Thom Shanker) notes that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to the U.S advanced air operations center in Qatar was “a major step forward for Pentagon transparency.” The center, the location of which was carefully guarded until this week, “coordinated all of the attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

According to multiple House aides, the House could vote on the NDAA later today, although the timing on the vote remains “very fluid” [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb].

In response to the growing unrest in Ukraine, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said yesterday that “all policy options, including sanctions, are on the table,” but stated that a decision had not yet been made. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest also expressed concern yesterday, stating “The Ukrainian government’s response to peaceful protests over the last two weeks has been completely unacceptable” [The Hill’s Justin Sink].

A second panel of Egyptian judges have halted the trial of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood after the defendants disrupted the proceedings [BBC]. The panel has referred the case to the Cairo appeals court.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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