News Roundup and Notes: January 2, 2014

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

Apple has issued a statement denying co-operation with the NSA, following German newspaper Der Spiegel’s report this week that the NSA had developed a system to monitor iPhones and retrieve data such as contact lists [Reuters]:

Apple has never worked with the NSA to create a backdoor in any of our products, including iPhone. Additionally, we have been unaware of this alleged NSA program targeting our products.

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers that supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, hacked Skype yesterday, while posting anti-surveillance messages online [Financial Times’ Hannah Kuchler]. The attack was motivated by allegations of NSA spying into Skype conversations and customer data, revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks last year.

The New York Times and The Guardian editorial boards call upon President Obama to offer Edward Snowden clemency or a plea bargain, “considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed.”

The Economist notes that the revelations in Der Spiegel’s recent report into how the NSA operates is a “good illustration of one of the big ramifications of Edward Snowden’s revelations—they’ve made it difficult to properly calibrate one’s paranoia.”

And Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman reports that while Obama has sent “signals that government surveillance programs need an overhaul to restore the public’s faith,” there is substantial pushback from the intelligence community, which is “already coming at a furious pace.”

Israel-Palestine

Secretary of State John Kerry is set to begin a round of talks today on a framework deal between Israel and Palestine, with issues including “borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and a security regime for the West Bank after the establishment of a Palestinian state” [Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Mitnick]. A U.S. proposal that Israeli security personnel remain along the West Bank border for ten years has been criticized by both sides. While Israel considers this is not long enough, Palestine has rejected any Israeli security presence longer than three years.

The New York Times (Jodi Rudoren) reports that the main “sticking point” in the peace talks is Israel’s “demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” which is unacceptable to Palestinians.

An Israeli official has stated that the Israeli government will delay the announcement of bids for new settlement construction while John Kerry is in the region in order to avoid a “potential high-profile clash on the contentious issue” [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]. Meanwhile, human rights groups have condemned the rise in Israeli military training raids being held in Palestinian homes [Al Jazeera].

Guantánamo

Miami Herald (Carol Rosenberg) notes that the December releases of Guantánamo detainees highlights that the State and Defense Departments have “breathed life into their long-stalled approach of trying to empty the prison on a case-by-case basis, fashioning specific solutions for each individual captive.” Most notable was the “‘significant milestone’ deal that resettled three long-held Uighur captives in Slovakia” earlier this week. China has criticized the U.S. decision to release the Uighur detainees, who are viewed as terrorist suspects by the Chinese authorities [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

Iran

The head of Iran’s expert-level nuclear negotiating team, Hamid Baeidinejad has stated that the negotiation powers have proposed January 20 as the date to implement the interim nuclear deal [MNA]. Baeidinejad dismissed remarks made by a U.S. State Department spokesperson that the implementation plan has yet to be finalized. The P5+1 countries, including the U.S., have provided no confirmation of the proposed date [Al Jazeera America].

Two “hard-line” conservatives were added to Iran’s supervisory council that monitors the country’s nuclear negotiating team, in a move “appeared to strengthen the influence of critics of the talks between Iran and world powers” [New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink].

Syria

The Dec 31 deadline for the removal of the “most critical” chemical weapons stockpile out of Syria was missed, “with two Nordic ships sent to collect it forced to turn back” [The Guardian’s Luke Harding]. The Obama administration has played down the missed deadline, with officials suggesting the overall removal and destruction plan remains on track.

The Wall Street Journal (Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman) reports that according to current and former U.S. officials, Syria has been replaced “by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come.” According to the report, the Syrian “regime’s survival [can be] seen as an example of America’s inability to steer events from a distance.”

Egypt

New charges have been leveled at Al Jazeera’s journalists detained in Egypt, including “joining a terrorist organisation, publishing false news harming national security, terrorising people and harming the people’s general benefit, and possessing broadcast equipment without licence” [Al Bawaba News]. While one detainee has been released, Al Jazeera continues to express outrage at the detention of its remaining three journalists.

A crackdown by the police on large Muslim Brotherhood protests in the Egyptian city of Alexandria yesterday has left two demonstrators dead [CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz].

South Sudan

Ethiopia will mediate the South Sudan conflict, with delegations from the rival sides meeting in Addis Ababa today [AP]. Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Hilde Johnson has called for all sides to “take a decisive step for peace” [UN News Centre]. And National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden has stated that the U.S. “remains deeply concerned by the fragile situation in South Sudan” and has called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities to stabilize the situation and permit full humanitarian access to civilian populations.”

Meanwhile, fighting continues in the country, with rebel forces seizing major sections of the city of Bor on the eve of the negotiations [New York Times’ Nicholas Kulish and Isma’il Kushkush]. And South Sudanese President Salva Kiir declared a state of emergency in two states yesterday [Al Jazeera].

Other developments

A federal district judge dismissed a lawsuit on Tuesday that sought to challenge the practice of searching laptops and other electronic devices at U.S. border checkpoints [Politico’s Tal Kopan].

A recommendation by an Afghan review commission calling for the release of more than 85 prisoners held at the main military prison near Bagram Air Base has raised serious concern among U.S. officials [New York Times Matthew Rosenberg].

The Pennsylvania woman who called herself “Jihad Jane” is expected to be sentenced on Monday for her role in a failed 2009 plot to kill a Swedish artist who offended many Muslims by drawing the Prophet Mohammed on the head of a dog [Reuters’ John Shiffman]. According to new court filings, prosecutors have called for “decades behind bars,” despite the “very significant” assistance provided by her to the U.S. in terrorism investigations.

The Daily Star reports that Lebanon’s Defense Minister has denied confirming the arrest of Majid bin Mohammad al-Majid, the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked group that claimed responsibility for last year’s attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. The BBC notes that other sources have since confirmed the arrest.

China’s first aircraft carrier has concluded a series of tests in the South China Sea, marking the first time that China “has manoeuvred with the kind of strike group of escort ships U.S. carriers deploy” [Reuters].

Three bombs exploded in Somalia’s Mogadishu yesterday, killing at least eleven people [Al Jazeera America]. While no claim of responsibility has yet been made, the venue has been targeted by al-Shabaab in the past.

At least ten people have been wounded in a grenade attack near Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa earlier today, but no group has claimed responsibility so far [AP].

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reversed an earlier decision to withdraw soldiers from cities in Anbar, and ordered reinforcements to tackle attacks by militants [AFP]. Meanwhile, the UN reported that violence in the country claimed the lives of 7,818 civilians in 2013, “the highest annual death toll in years” [AP’s Sinan Salaheddin].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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