News Roundup and Notes: December 23, 2013

Today’s News Roundup and Notes will be our only Roundup for this week, as we are off for the remainder of this week for the Christmas holiday. From the entire Just Security Team, we wish you a very happy holiday. The News Roundup will be back on Monday morning. Here’s today’s news.

Surveillance

At a White House news conference on Friday, President Obama stated that he would have a “pretty definitive statement” on his panel’s proposed reforms to the NSA’s surveillance operations in January [Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Greg Miller]. He acknowledged that the U.S. needed to provide “more confidence” to the international community, but noted that he had seen no evidence that the agency “acted inappropriately.”

The New York Times editorial questions “Mr. Obama’s disappointing response” to the recommendations of his NSA review panel. According to the editorial board, “he left the impression that he sees this issue as basically a question of public relations and public perception.”

And ICYMI, The Guardian (James Ball and Nick Hopkins), New York Times (James Glanz and Andrew W. Lehren) and Der Spiegel (Laura Poitras et al.) revealed that the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ had a “comprehensive list of surveillance targets” including heads of international aid organizations, German politicians and the EU’s competition commissioner. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the targets also included email addresses belonging to the then-serving Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Senior Israeli officials expressed anger over the spying claims yesterday [CNN’s Steve Almasy]. A spokesperson for Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz stated that the spying “is not legitimate and not acceptable.” And the Washington Post (Ruth Eglash) covers how some Israeli legislators are “using the disclosures to draw attention to the case of a Jewish American who has been held in a U.S. prison for more than 26 years, convicted of spying on the United States for Israel.”

Reuters (Joseph Menn) reported on Friday that the NSA arranged a “secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry” as part of a campaign to “embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products.” The RSA responded yesterday:

We categorically deny this allegation. We have worked with the NSA, both as a vendor and an active member of the security community. We have never kept this relationship a secret and in fact have openly publicized it. … we also categorically state that we have never entered into any contract or engaged in any project with the intention of weakening RSA’s products, or introducing potential ‘backdoors’ into our products for anyone’s use.

DNI James Clapper declassified a set of documents on Saturday, following a court order related to lawsuits brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]. The declassification extends to Bush-era documents about the origins of the surveillance program.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy announced yesterday that the members of the President’s review group will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next month to provide testimony on their recent recommendations.

Leahy and House Intelligence Committee member Peter King debated the NSA surveillance program on NBC’s “Meet the Press” (David Gregory) [Politico’s Ginger Gibson]. King strongly defended the NSA, stating, “I wish the president would step forward and defend the NSA.” While Leahy expressed concern that “the Founding Fathers would be astounded to see what the NSA and others are doing.”

Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Udall and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers also addressed NSA surveillance on ABC’s “This Week” (George Stephanopoulos). While Udall called for “real reform,” Rogers defended the program and labeled Edward Snowden a “traitor.”

Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director and member of the NSA review panel, defended the agency’s program on CBS’s “Face the Nation” (Bob Schieffer), stating that the NSA “is not spying on Americans.” He added, “It is focused on this metadata for one purpose only and that is to make sure that foreign terrorists aren’t in contact with anybody in the United States.”

AT&T has announced that it will publish reports on the number of requests for customer information that it receives from the government, a day after Verizon made a similar announcement [AP’s Marcy Gordon].

Edward Snowden has criticized the presidential NSA review panel, stating that it has only suggested “cosmetic changes,” according to an exchange with Brazilian Globo TV channel [Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Cowley]. Snowden said, “Their job wasn’t to protect privacy or deter abuses, it was to ‘restore public confidence’ in these spying activities.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, the members of the NSA review group summarize the ten most significant recommendations, including ending the government’s domestic program for storing telephone metadata. They argue, “Without these reforms … we fear that pressure might grow for more sweeping and perhaps unwarranted changes that could ultimately put our nation at risk.” 

Yemen

In a “rare public apology,” al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen blamed a fighter for disobeying orders and targeting a military hospital during an attack on Yemen’s Defense Ministry earlier this month [Al Jazeera]. Qassim al-Rimi, the commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, stated, “we acknowledge our mistake and guilt.” The group had initially denied responsibility for the hospital attack.

Guantánamo

The military judge in the 9/11 case has ordered the U.S. government to preserve remaining evidence of the CIA’s “black sites,” according to defense and prosecution lawyers [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi has posted on blog Syria Comment stating that he has identified former Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Mizouz in Syria, “appearing alongside fighters from both Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Latakia.” 

South Sudan

In a letter to Congress, President Obama reported that over the weekend, approximately 46 additional U.S. military personnel were deployed to South Sudan to evacuate U.S. citizens and personnel. However, the operation was curtailed “due to security considerations” after the aircraft came under fire as it approached Bor. He added that he “may take further action to support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and property, including our Embassy, in South Sudan.”

A statement of the White House also issued a warning to South Sudan that “any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of longstanding support from the United States and the international community” [Reuters’ Ros Krasny And Phil Stewart].

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed yesterday that around 380 U.S. citizens have been evacuated from the country [The Hill’s Laura Barron-Lopez].

Iran

The Wall Street Journal editorial argues that by threatening to veto any new sanctions legislation against Iran, Obama is rejecting “a bipartisan attempt to strengthen his negotiating hand.”

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” (David Gregory), Sen. Chuck Schumer remained committed to his bill imposing harsher sanctions on Iran [The Hill’s Molly K. Hooper].

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that the implementation talks on the interim deal are making “slow progress” [BBC]. Zarif has agreed to postpone talks until after Christmas.

Syria

The northern city of Aleppo was hit by “barrel bombs” yesterday, “in the eighth day of government airstrikes on the city” [Al Jazeera].

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Jimmy Carter and Robert A. Pastor argue, “It is time to change the agenda, the preconditions and the strategy on Syria — and end the war.” They propose that the discussions in Geneva should be based on self-determination, respect for all sectarian and minority groups, and the guarantee of a robust international peacekeeping force.

Other developments

The Washington Post (Dana Priest) reports that a covert CIA operation has helped kill at least two dozen rebel leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The CIA program, “which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget.”

McClatchy DC (Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay) reports that the Pentagon and CIA investigations into the leaks of the bin Laden raid to Hollywood filmmakers have not yet held anyone accountable. According to sources, the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office is instead “working to root out who might have disclosed the findings … to a nonprofit watchdog group and to McClatchy.”

In an op-ed in USA Today, Rep. Paul Ryan defends the military benefits cuts, arguing that the controversy surrounding the reform “simply can’t deter us from doing the right thing.”

Robert O. Work, a former top Navy official, is likely to be named the next deputy Defense Secretary, according to a source close to the confirmation process [The Washington Times’ Rowan Scarborough].

The Treasury Department has identified two Islamic charity officials who also acted as major financial backers of al-Qaeda and its regional chapters across the Middle East [Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Tik Root]. According to U.S. officials, such alleged dual roles “reflect a growing challenge for counterterrorism officials attempting to monitor the torrents of cash flowing to Islamist rebel groups in Syria.”

The Telegraph (Jon Swaine) reports that according to “newly unearthed testimony” of a former U.S. spy, the CIA held Syrian militants secretly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, while Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime was publicly blamed for the attack.

The Arab League has rejected U.S. proposals for a security deal that would allow Israeli soldiers to be stationed along the border of a future Palestinian state, “underscoring the challenge facing a U.S. effort to wrap up a peace deal by April” [Reuters].

At least 13 people have been killed in Libya’s first suicide bombing since the fall of the Gaddafi regime [CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh]. The attack targeted a military post near Benghazi.

An Egyptian court has sentenced three leading activists to three years in prison for organizing an illegal protest, in the first criminal trial under the country’s new restrictive protest laws [Al Jazeera]. The ruling is the latest move in a crackdown that “has recently widened to include liberal and secular activists.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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