News Roundup and Notes: December 19, 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 White House released the Report and Recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies [executive summary].  The report–“Liberty and Security in a Changing World”–recommends significant reform of the NSA’s spying operations in the U.S. and abroad. The report recommends, among other things, that metadata of Americans’ phone calls should only be made available to the government through individual court orders. The New York Times (David E. Sanger and Charlie Savage), Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman et al.) and Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima and Ashkan Soltani) provide more details.

The New York Times editorial welcomes the “remarkably thorough and well-reasoned report” and notes that President Obama “can quickly adopt his panel’s recommendation and end the ineffective and constitutionally dangerous dragnet surveillance.” And check out Just Security’s Jennifer Granick’s post from last night on the important ways in which the report pushes consideration of the privacy rights of non-U.S. persons into the policy debate.

The Associated Press (Nataliya Vasilyeva) reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin stated earlier this morning that NSA surveillance is necessary to fight terrorism, but noted that the U.S. government must “limit the appetite” of the agency with a clear set of rules.

Sen. Rand Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that DNI James Clapper’s false claims that the intelligence community was not spying on Americans “is probably more injurious to our intelligence capabilities than anything Snowden did” [Politico’s Jose Delreal].

Reuters (Alonso Soto and Brian Winter) reports that Brazil has awarded a $4.5 billion contract to Saab AB to replace the country’s fleet of fighter jets, “a surprise coup for the Swedish company after news of U.S. spying on Brazilians helped derail Boeing’s chances for the deal.”

NetSuite, the cloud-based software firm is speeding up its construction of data centers in Europe as prospective customers have expressed concern over whether the NSA could access their personal information stored in data centers [Wall Street Journal’s Michael Hickins].

Guantánamo

As indicated earlier this week in the News Roundup, the U.S. sent back two Guantánamo prisoners home to Sudan yesterday [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]. The population of the detention center now stands at 158.

ICYMI, check out Just Security’s Thomas Earnest’s post from last night providing an update on yesterday’s 9/11 case hearings before the military commission. And Just Security’s Marty Lederman has a post on one of Judge Pohl’s orders on the “observations and experiences” of defendants formerly held by the CIA.

Iran

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Ali Gharib) has obtained a copy of a new Iran sanctions bill that some argue would breach the terms of the interim agreement reached last month. The bill is set for introduction by Senators Robert Menendez, Chuck Schumer and Mark Kirk.

Meanwhile, Senators Carl Levin and Barbara Boxer argue strongly against the imposition of any new sanctions [Politico Magazine]. They note that nothing in the interim deal restricts the ability to respond if Iran fails to comply, but that “allowing time for the United States and its allies to explore the possibility of a peaceful resolution is in our nation’s interest and in the interest of our friends and allies.”

And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has voiced doubts on whether a final agreement with Iran will be reached. He stated that it will depend on whether “the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon or only agree to interrupt the nuclear program.”

Syria

According to analysts, the information in the UN report on chemical weapons in Syria, released last week, could further implicate the regime in the Ghouta attack [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta]. However, the presence of the chemical hexamine in environmental samples is viewed by some as only circumstantial, not conclusive evidence.

Reuters reports that Russian deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov indicated to Interfax news agency that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should refrain from making statements suggesting he will stand for re-election. He said that “such rhetorical statements affect the atmosphere and do not make the situation any calmer” ahead of the peace talks.

The Economist covers how the “rise of jihadists and the worsening sectarian strife in Syria have put Western backers of the rebel opposition in a quandary.”

The leader of al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra has told Al Jazeera that “the battle is almost over.” Abu Mohammed al-Joulani also ruled out participating in peace talks with the regime.

An Amnesty International report details the “serious abuses of human rights committed in detention facilities run by the [rebel group] Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” including torture and summary executions.

And the Washington Post (Joby Warrick) reports how the “months of bitter sectarian fighting in Syria is deepening the divide between the branches of Islam in Persian Gulf states far from the battlefield, as Sunnis and Shiites wage dueling campaigns to drum up cash and supplies for Syria’s partisans.”

Afghanistan

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove has stated that NATO will need to start planning for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by early next spring if Afghan President Hamid Karzai fails to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. [Reuters’ Sabine Siebold].

The New York Times (Azam Ahmed and Taimoor Shah) reports that an Afghan Army commander in the Helmand Province brokered a cease-fire and turf-sharing deal with local Taliban insurgents. The move, which has raised alarm, is an “example of the sort of ground-level bargaining that some see as increasingly likely once international troops withdraw next year.”

Egypt

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of a bill yesterday that gives the White House flexibility in continuing U.S. aid to Egypt and other countries, even in the event of a military coup [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. Congress must be assured that the aid is in America’s “vital national security interests” and that its recipient is “committed to restoring democratic governance and due process of law, and is taking demonstrable steps toward holding free and fair elections in a reasonable timeframe.”

According to documents seen by Al Jazeera, Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi will stand trial on charges of “conspiring with foreign groups” to commit “terrorist acts,” including for preparing a “terrorist plan” in alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Other developments

The White House plans to nominate Senator Max Baucus to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to China, according to sources familiar with the decision [Wall Street Journal’s Janet Hook and Adam Entous].

U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power has told NPR (Michele Keleman) that this is “an important prevention moment” in the conflict  in the Central African Republic (CAR). She added that President Obama has authorized up to $100 million to support the African Union forces in the CAR. And Amnesty International has warned that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed in the country [CNN’s Marie-Louise Gumuchian].

The State Department has issued a warning against a new terrorist group linked to an Algerian militant that has emerged as “the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests” in Africa’s Sahel region [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon]. The Algerian militant is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, “who has long been a notorious figure in the Sahel region … and who appears to have become more dangerous even as his ties to Al Qaeda seem to have become more tenuous.”

The Associated Press reports that a man from Illinois convicted earlier this year of conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban has been sentenced in New York to 25 years in prison.

Politico (Austin Wright) notes that Sen. Patty Murray is “distancing herself from a cut in military pensions in the budget she brokered with Rep. Paul Ryan.” She responded to the backlash from veteran groups and others by stating that the pensions cut is not final and that the bill allows a period of two years within which changes can be made.

The U.K.’s Gibson inquiry has released its report into allegations that MI5 and MI6 colluded in the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition and torture program [The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow]. The report concludes that in some instances, U.K. intelligence officers “were aware of inappropriate interrogation techniques and mistreatment” and that the “government or its agencies may have become inappropriately involved in some cases of rendition.”

The Washington Post editorial board writes that Ukraine’s move toward Russia “will only hurt the country.” It argues, “The West should have a strategy that looks past thuggish Russian and Ukrainian rulers and invests in Ukraine’s future — which can be found in Kiev’s streets.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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