News Roundup and Notes: December 20, 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

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated yesterday that the Pentagon is reviewing the recommendations of the President’s NSA review panel [The Hill’s Carlo Muñoz]. However, Hagel said he did not want to see a gap in NSA intelligence flow, which is used by American commanders around the world.

A member of the review panel, Richard Clarke told ABC News (Brian Ross and Lee Ferran) that what Edward Snowden did was “treason … and there is nothing in what we say that justifies what he did.”

Politico (Josh Gerstein) reports on “Obama’s NSA fine-print problem,” noting that the most troubling conclusion of the panel for the President is that “section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) picks up on recommendation 20 in the report, which “calls for targeted searches instead of amassing as much data as possible” and is “likely to reignite a contentious debate within U.S. intelligence circles.”

The New York Times (David E. Sanger) covers the choice facing Obama: “to keep building the world’s most sophisticated cyberarsenal, or pare back for fear of harming American competitiveness.”

The Washington Post (Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima) covers how developments this week have called into question the “two main lines of defense” used by U.S. officials: “The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.”

Seven House Republicans have written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation into whether DNI James Clapper lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso]. Earlier this year, Clapper told the Committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect any information on Americans in bulk.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Michael Mukasey, Steven Bradbury and David Rivkin Jr. argue why Monday’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Richard Leon “is wrong on the law and the facts.” They add, “Judging the value of an intelligence program demands the greatest deference to the political branches; courts are not institutionally suited to the task.”

Meanwhile, Verizon has announced that it will begin publishing reports on the number of government requests it receives for customer data beginning next year, “setting a significant precedent for the telecommunications industry” [Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang].

NDAA

The Senate approved the compromise NDAA legislation by a vote of 84-15 late last evening [Politico’s Juana Summers and Austin Wright]. Just Security has provided coverage in recent weeks of the NDAA and several provisions contained in the compromise legislation.  In case you missed any of the analysis, you can read it here.

Guantánamo

The Associated Press (Mohamed Osman) reports that one of the two Sudanese Guantánamo detainees who were returned home yesterday, Ibrahim Idris stated that he had been “systematically tortured” and that punishment was “doubled” for those who attempted hunger strikes.

Iran

A bipartisan group of 26 senators introduced legislation yesterday–the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013–that would impose new sanctions against Iran [Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Karen deYoung]. The sanctions would go into effect if Iran breached the terms of the interim agreement or if a permanent deal failed to be concluded.

White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed yesterday that the President “would veto” the Iran sanctions bill if enacted [Politico’s Reid J. Epstein]. Carney added that the Senate bill “would derail negotiations just when diplomacy is making progress. It would potentially divide the international community and obviously would suggest bad faith on the part of the United States.”

And ten Democratic Senate committee chairs wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid urging him to not allow a vote on tougher Iran sanctions legislation [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad].

South Sudan

President Obama has issued a statement on the escalating violence in South Sudan, noting that the country “stands at the precipice” and that “recent fighting threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.” In a letter to Congress, Obama stated that the U.S. has deployed 45 military personnel to South Sudan to help bolster security at the U.S. Embassy [AP].

Yesterday, unknown assailants attacked a UN base in the country, “possibly killing or injuring civilians who had sought refuge inside during violent clashes between Government forces and rebels” [UN News Centre]. The Times of India reports that three Indian UN peacekeepers were killed in the attack.

South Sudan’s government said this morning that it is willing to engage in dialogue with rivals, as African ministers sought to broker a peace deal in the country [Reuters’ Carl Odera].

Syria

According to UN diplomats, Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement yesterday that would have condemned the Syrian government for this week’s missile and “barrel bomb” attacks on civilians [Reuters’ Louis Charbonneau]. A spokesperson for the U.S. mission stated, “We are very disappointed that a Security Council statement expressing our collective outrage at the brutal and indiscriminate tactics employed by the Syrian regime against civilians has been blocked.”

A UN panel investigating human rights violations in Syria has published a report stating that “the Government has perpetuated a system of arrests and incommunicado detention that is conducive to enforced disappearances” [UN News Centre]. It also finds that “specific anti-Government armed groups have adopted practices that could be considered tantamount to enforced disappearances, in breach of their obligations under customary international humanitarian law.”

Egypt

Former Egyptian Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq was acquitted of corruption charges yesterday [AFP]. A spokesperson for Shafiq told AFP that he intends to build on his political party, now that he can return to the country, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-2014. The Egyptian courts also acquitted two sons of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, but they still face other trials.

Armed state security officers detained and used force against staff of a prominent human rights organization in Cairo, “a sign of growing willingness by Egypt’s military-backed government to expand its crackdown beyond Islamist supporters of the deposed president … to a much broader swath of dissidents” [New York Times’ Kareem Fahim and Mayy El Sheikh].

Other developments

The New York Times editorial calls for the release of the reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA on the agency’s detention and torture program post-9/11. The editorial board argues that the President “has a duty to ensure prompt public release of the documents — minimally redacted to protect genuine national security secrets, not to avoid embarrassment.”

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 66 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, although 55 percent favors keeping some U.S. troops in Afghanistan for anti-insurgency operations and training.

An internal investigation by the Air Force Inspector General revealed that an Air Force general in charge of nuclear weapons was removed from his job because he “acted in a manner that exceeded the limits of accepted standards of good conduct” during a visit to Moscow in July this year [Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock]. Maj. Gen. Michael Carey reportedly drank too much, insulted his Russian hosts and associated with two suspicious women.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the decision by the Chinese warship earlier this month “irresponsible” and warned that a near collision “could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation” [New York Times’ Thom Shanker].

ICYMI, yesterday, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda filed a motion seeking an adjournment of the case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on the grounds that she can no longer meet the required evidentiary standards following the withdrawal of another prosecution witness from the case.

Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin covers why the Obama administration made an “abrupt reversal” on the decision to add to the Russian sanctions list, “thereby avoiding a new confrontation with the Russian government during a sensitive time in the U.S.-Russian relationship.”

North Korea has threatened to strike South Korea “without notice” in response to protests held in South Korea earlier this week against the North’s human rights record [Al Jazeera].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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