News Roundup and Notes: December 30, 2013

The News Roundup and Notes will be back on January 2, 2014. From the entire Just Security Team, we wish you a very happy new year. Here’s today’s news. 

Surveillance

Der Spiegel reports on the working methods of the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), a specialist hacking unit that is considered to be the agency’s “top secret weapon.” The TAO “maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.”

ICYMI, on Friday, Judge Pauley of the SDNY ruled in favor of the government in ACLU v. Clapper, ruling, among other things, that the NSA telephony metadata program is constitutional under the 4th Amendment [AP]. Judge Pauley noted that the program amounted to the government’s “counter-punch” against al-Qaeda’s terror network and that “this blunt tool only works because it collects everything.” Just Security’s Marty Lederman provides a summary account of the opinion.

The New Yorker (Amy Davidson) covers the conflicting legal opinions of the two federal judges, Richard Leon and William H. Pauley over the constitutionality of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program. And Politico (Jonathan Allen and Josh Gerstein) notes that while the NSA operation “got a lifeline” on Friday, “its future remains in political and legal jeopardy.”

Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden told CBS’s “Face the Nation” (Major Garrett) that the Snowden leaks amounted to the “the most serious hemorrhaging of American secrets in the history of American espionage.” He added, “What Snowden is revealing … is the plumbing. He’s revealing how we acquire this information.”

And in an opinion in the Wall Street Journal, Philip Mudd argues that the NSA’s metadata program is essential to the agency’s goal of eliminating the “entire spiderweb” of terror networks.

Benghazi

The New York Times (David D. Kirkpatrick) reported this weekend that an investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission has “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.” According to a lengthy investigation by the New York Times, the attack was led “by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Rep. Darryl Issa responded to the report on NBC’s “Meet The Press” (David Gregory). He claimed that regardless of which group was responsible for the Benghazi attack, the White House response was a “clear attempt” to cover up and mislead the public. House Intelligence Committee members Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Adam Schiff also pushed back against the report on Fox News Sunday (Chris Wallace). Rogers claimed that the accounts of people on the ground in Benghazi prove that the New York Times investigation is “just not accurate.”

Meanwhile, Daily Beast’s Eli Lake covers the evidence that has emerged in the last year, which “does show the participation of militias and fighters with known ties to al Qaeda.” And Blake Hounshell notes “why we’ll never stop arguing about Benghazi” [Politico Magazine]. Among other reasons, Hounshell lists political opportunism, disagreement on what al-Qaeda is, and differing ideologies.

Israel-Palestine

Secretary of State John Kerry will be traveling to Jerusalem and Ramallah this week to discuss the ongoing final status negotiations between Israel and Palestine. As part of the U.S.-brokered peace talks, Israel has agreed to free 26 Palestinian prisoners tonight, all of whom “perpetrated offences prior to the Oslo accords and have served sentences of 19-28 years” [AFP].

And UPI reports that an Israeli TV station claims, based on anonymous sources, that John Kerry suggested the U.S. may free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard if Israel frees more Arab prisoners.

Iran

Al-Monitor’s The Back Channel (Laura Rozen) reports that one of the key issues to be resolved under the interim nuclear deal is the “differing interpretation over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges,” according to non-proliferation experts. The technical talks on implementing the interim deal are scheduled to resume today.

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon) covers how the U.S. “gained a little-known ally in its bid to win crucial Arab support for curbing Iran’s nuclear program: Oman.” Following its role in facilitating behind-the-scenes diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Iran, Oman is now “working to help sell the deal to skeptical Arab governments,” according to U.S., Iranian and Arab officials.

Syria

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria announced on Saturday that while “preparations continue in readiness for the transport of most of the critical chemical material” out of the country, the transportation before the December 31 deadline “is unlikely.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 500 people have been killed by “barrel bombs” in the northern city of Aleppo [BBC]. And Al Jazeera reports that the Syrian government has evacuated around 5,000 people from a town near Damascus, “where rebels linked to al-Qaeda have been battling government troops for more than two weeks.”

South Sudan

South Sudan’s army has clashed with ethnic Nuer fighters, also known as the White Army, while government officials accused rebel forces of mobilizing the fighters despite its offer of a truce [Reuters]. The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan voiced concern yesterday about the involvement of the armed group, warning it would add a “volatile and unpredictable ingredient” to the already precarious security situation in the country [UN News Centre].

Egypt

A bomb exploded near Egypt’s military intelligence offices in the Nile Delta yesterday [CNN’s Yousuf Basil]. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Egyptian Minister of Defense Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi yesterday to offer assistance in investigating the recent bomb attacks [DoD News].

On Saturday, Egyptian police targeted protestors at the country’s main Islamic university, “firing tear gas and breaking up a strike by students” [AP]. One student was killed in the clash.

And Egypt’s security forces have arrested four Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo, for allegedly holding illegal meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist group last week [BBC].

Other developments

The Washington Post (Ernesto Londoño et al.) reports that according to a classified U.S. intelligence assessment on Afghanistan, “the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation.”

In Politico Magazine, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross covers how al-Qaeda “made a comeback in 2013,” as the “group’s regional affiliates have dramatically reasserted themselves in multiple countries, carrying out spectacular attacks and inflicting increasing levels of carnage.”

The Washington Post (Lisa Rein) notes that amid the controversy over military pension cuts, some lawmakers “are vowing to overturn the pension change as soon as the House and the Senate reconvene Friday.”

According to the latest figures, the “sharp increase in the number of sexual assault reports filed by members of the armed services is providing new fuel to the debate about how to overhaul the military justice system,” reports the Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes).

The Washington Post (Rajiv Chandrasekaran) notes how the U.S. Army and Marines have been drawn into a “turf battle,” as the Pentagon is “seeking to place the Air Force, Navy and Marines in dominant roles to counter threats in the Asia-Pacific region, which they have deemed to be the nation’s next big national security challenge.”

The Independent (Oliver Wright) reports that “in an unprecedented move,” the U.K. government will be declassifying more than 100 documents detailing discussions between George Bush and former U.K. Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the build-up to the Iraq war.

Four U.S. military officials were taken into custody at a checkpoint in Libya on Friday and detained by the Libyan government briefly before being released [AP].

Saudi Arabia has pledged $3 billion to support Lebanon’s defense forces, “in a challenge to the Iranian-allied Hezbollah militia’s decades long status as Lebanon’s main power broker and security force” [Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer and Maria Abi-Habib]. Meanwhile, in escalating tension between Lebanon and Israel, two missiles fired from Lebanon exploded in northern Israel, prompting Israeli retaliation with around twenty artillery shells [Al Jazeera America].

A second deadly blast has exploded in the Russian city of Volgograd today, killing at least 14 people [CNN’s Jethro Mullen]. The U.S. State Department responded to yesterday’s attack, also in Volgograd, issuing a statement condemning the terrorist attack in the strongest terms.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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