News Roundup and Notes: December 16, 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

In an interview with John Miller at CBS News’ “60 Minutes” aired last night, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and senior NSA official, Rick Ledgett defended the agency’s surveillance program. Ledgett, who is responsible for reviewing the damage caused by Edward Snowden’s leaks, stated that “it’s worth having a conversation about” granting Snowden amnesty. However, he said, “I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured and my bar for those assurances would be very high.” Ledgett also said that Snowden has access to documents revealing gaps in U.S. capabilities, which would give U.S. adversaries “a roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them–implicitly, a way to–protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view.” When questioned about a FISC ruling that stated the NSA had overstepped its powers, Gen. Keith Alexander claimed, “There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.”

The reaction online to the CBS interview has been largely negative, with criticism focused on the absence of any opposing views. For instance:

According to senior government officials, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement investigators have concluded that they may never know the extent of Edward Snowden’s leaks [New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt].

The Obama administration has declined to split the leadership of the NSA and Cyber Command [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mail that the “one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions.”

And the Financial Times (Hugh Carnegy) reports that French lawmakers voted last week to “significantly” expand the government’s powers of digital surveillance. The bill “allows access not only to data about telephone and internet traffic from internet providers but also to content, including that held by host websites [as well as] access in real time to the location of mobile devices.”

Guantánamo

Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg reports that two Guantánamo detainees were sent home to Saudi Arabia this weekend. Both men have been cleared for transfer since 2009 and neither has ever been charged with a crime.

The military commission hearing the 9/11 conspiracy trial will be holding a closed hearing today to decide which of this week’s arguments can be heard by the defendants and the public [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

Drones

The Nation (Ahmad Nabi) reports that a U.S. drone strike targeted a boat carrying suspected terrorists near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on Saturday, killing at least seven militants, according to local sources and intelligence officials.

Yemen’s parliament passed a law yesterday banning drone strikes, following last week’s strikes in the country [AFP]. According to the Saba news agency, Yemen’s parliament stressed “the importance of protecting all citizens from any aggression” and “the importance of preserving the sovereignty of Yemeni air space.”

Iran

Reuters (Steve Holland) reports that National Security Adviser Susan Rice consulted Israeli officials last week in a series of meetings aimed at gaining Israel’s support for the interim deal with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at Tehran’s Foreign Ministry yesterday, stated that Iran will continue talks on the nuclear deal despite hitting a “snag” last week owing to the “extremely counterproductive” U.S. Treasury Department decision to enforce existing sanctions [Washington Post’s David Ignatius].

Following last week’s report from the Associated Press on Robert Levinson–the American who disappeared in Iran nearly seven years ago while allegedly working for the CIA–Secretary of State John Kerry rejected allegations that the U.S. had abandoned Levinson on ABC’s “This Week” (Martha Raddatz):

…to suggest that we have abandoned him or anybody has abandoned him is simply incorrect and not helpful. The fact is, that I have personally raised the issue not only at the highest level that I have been involved with, but also through other intermediaries.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain told CNN’s “State of the Union” that he is disturbed that the CIA “did not tell the truth to the American Congress about Mr. Levinson.” McCain claimed, “If that’s true, then you put this on top of things that our intelligence committees didn’t know about other activities, which have been revealed by Snowden — maybe it means that we should be examining the oversight role of Congress over our different intelligence agencies” [CNN’s Mark Morgenstein and Ashley Killough].

And according to the Fars news agency, Iranian intelligence authorities have arrested a man on charges of spying for Britain’s intelligence service, MI6 [Al Jazeera America]. The U.K. Foreign Office declined to comment on intelligence matters.

Syria

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated this morning that at least 76 people, including 28 children, have been killed by “barrel bombs” dropped by Syrian army helicopters on Aleppo yesterday [Reuters].

Al Jazeera (Basma Atassi) covers how the “once-powerful Free Syrian Army commander Saddam al-Jamal has pledged allegiance to [al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant].”

Secretary of State John Kerry indicated on ABC’s “This Week” (Martha Raddatz) that there will be a quick resumption of non-lethal aid to Syria, which was suspended last week following the takeover of a warehouse by Islamist rebel fighters [The Hill’s Kyle Balluck].

And in an opinion in the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt questions why Obama wanted action in Darfur, but not in Syria, noting the “equivalent humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria.”

Afghanistan

Secretary of State John Kerry stated yesterday that he believes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai or his successor will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., but noted that Karzai should be the one signing the agreement “because of the planning that is necessary” [ABC’s “This Week’s” Martha Raddatz].

NBC News (Aarne Heikkila et al.) reports that the “so-called ‘world’s most treacherous tunnel’ has received a $19.5 million makeover to help ensure the U.S. military has a guaranteed exit route from landlocked Afghanistan.” The Salang Tunnel provides an alternative amid concerns over whether the route through Pakistan’s main border checkpoint can be relied upon, with demonstrations against U.S. drones having blocked NATO traffic since earlier this month.

Other developments

According to a State Department official, the U.S. government has complained to Chinese officials after one of its guided missile cruisers narrowly avoided collision with a Chinese warship in international waters in the South China Sea earlier this month [Washington Post’s Simon Denyer and William Wan].

Prince Turki al-Faisal, former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, has criticized the Obama administration’s Middle East policies [New York Times’ Steven Erlanger]. He stated that U.S. and UN inaction over Syria has bordered on “criminal negligence.” Al-Faisal claimed there was an issue of confidence as “we’ve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white.”

The EU announced yesterday that it was halting efforts toward a trade and political pact with Ukraine over President Viktor Yanukovich’s stance on the deal [Reuters’ Richard Balmforth and Gabriela Baczynska]. Senator John McCain addressed the anti-government protestors in Kiev yesterday, stating, “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

A Libyan militia leader, who has kept many of the country’s oil ports closed since July, announced yesterday that his group would not reopen them, despite an earlier agreement, stating that his group’s condition of greater regional autonomy had not been met [Wall Street Journal’s Benoît Faucon and Summer Said].

Israel and Lebanon have engaged in cross-border fighting, after an Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Lebanese soldier, prompting retaliatory shooting which hit two Lebanese officers [The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood]. No further escalation of the situation was reported.

The date for Egypt’s referendum on its new constitution is set for January 14-15, 2014 [CNN’s Yousuf Basil].

Reuters reports that suicide bombings across Iraq killed at least 21 people today, “the latest in a series of attacks that has brought violence in Iraq to its highest level in five years.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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