News Roundup and Notes: January 6, 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.

Surveillance

The NSA responded to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ letter this weekend, which questioned whether the agency has been or is spying on Congress, by stating, “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons” [CNN’s Security Clearance’s Conor Finnegan]. The agency’s preliminary response did not provide more detail, but stated it would further review Sanders’ letter.

Sen. Rand Paul announced on Friday that he is planning a class-action lawsuit against the NSA. Paul told ABC’s “This Week” (George Stephanopoulos):

I think the idea of a class-action lawsuit with hundreds of thousands of participants really beats home and brings to the forefront the idea that this is a generalized warrant and it should be considered unconstitutional.

Paul also called for leniency toward Edward Snowden, but stopped short of supporting clemency. Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer disagreed, stating that “running away, being helped by Russia and China, is not in the tradition of a true civil disobedient practitioner.”

ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt wrote a letter to the New York Times, disputing the paper’s allegations that DNI James Clapper “lied” to Congress about the NSA’s bulk telephony metadata collection. Litt stated that the “incident shows the difficulty of discussing classified information in an unclassified setting and the danger of inferring a person’s state of mind from extemporaneous answers given under pressure.”

The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright questions Judge William Pauley’s rationale that the metadata collection program could have assisted the FBI in preventing the 9/11 attack. Wright argues that contrary to Pauley’s conclusion, the bureau failed to prevent the attack because “[the] CIA withheld crucial intelligence from the FBI.”

And Politico (Josh Gerstein) reports that a federal appeals court ruled on Friday that the Justice Department does not have to release a legal opinion regarding the FBI’s surveillance authorities, despite the memo being referred to by an FBI official while defending the agency at a Congressional hearing.

Afghanistan

The Afghan review panel announced on Saturday that 88 Bagram prisoners, who are deemed dangerous by the U.S., are innocent [Khaama Press]. A member of the review panel reportedly said that they had not received any evidence linking the prisoners to any attacks against Afghan or coalition forces.

The Washington Post (Tim Craig) covers how Pakistani provincial leader Imran Khan is “complicat[ing] NATO plans for Afghanistan” by blocking a vital NATO route through northwest Pakistan, in response to U.S. drone strikes.

And The Times (Deborah Haynes) reports that according to British commanders and military experts, “hard-fought territory in southern Afghanistan will fall to the [Taliban]” after British and NATO forces withdraw this year.

Iraq

Clashes in Iraq’s Anbar province against al-Qaeda-aligned militants continued over the weekend [New York Times’ Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango]. While security forces made some gains in the city of Ramadi yesterday, militants remained in firm control of Falluja.

Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged support to the Iraqi government, but confirmed that U.S. troops will not be returning to Iraq [Reuters]. Kerry told reporters yesterday, “We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground.” Meanwhile, a senior Iranian military official has also stated that Iran is willing to help Iraq counter al-Qaeda “terrorists” in the country [AP].

Time (Mark Thompson) covers responses in the U.S. to al-Qaeda’s takeover of Falluja, the “Iraqi city that cost 100 American lives a decade ago.” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham placed blame on the Obama administration, stating:

When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national-security interests.

Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Iran could participate in the Geneva II conference on Syria this month, but noted that participation “has to be determined by the [UN] secretary general and it has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves.”

Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) ceded ground this weekend near the Turkish border, “in what seemed to be a tactical withdrawal to end clashes between those opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad” [Al Jazeera America].

The Wall Street Journal (Ellen Knickmeyer and Jay Solomon) covers how the “violence and advances by al Qaeda-linked fighters in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are underscoring the cost of Syria’s civil war as it increasingly spills over the country’s borders” and “is particularly worrisome to the Obama administration.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board argues that the “costs and consequences of [Obama’s] retreat are now becoming clear in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond.” The editorial warns, “Those costs may end up being far greater than if we had stayed engaged in Iraq and attempted to help the moderate opposition in Syria.”

And the Department of Defense announced on Friday that around 64 specialists are scheduled to depart aboard the U.S. ship in approximately two weeks to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Israel-Palestine

Speaking in Jerusalem yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry remained optimistic about Israel-Palestine talks, stating, “the path is becoming clearer, the puzzle is becoming more defined.” However, Kerry acknowledged that “[m]istrust obviously exists at a very high level.” The Wall Street Journal (Joshua Mitnick) and Washington Post (Anne Gearan and William Booth) have more details.

The Associated Press reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners have stepped up pressure, “threatening to topple the government if he caves in to American pressure” and accepts the 1967 borders as the baseline for the peace talks.

Other developments

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (John Hudson) reports that the FBI has dropped law enforcement as its “primary function,” which is now listed as “national security.” A spokesperson at the agency declined to explain the timing of the change, but stated that the FBI was keeping up with the times.

Former CIA top lawyer John Rizzo provides an account of his decision-making role in the agency’s post-9/11 “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” including waterboarding [Politico Magazine].

The Miami Herald (Carol Rosenberg) covers how the “military spent December systematically reducing the flow of information” from Guantánamo Bay, including halting the release of the daily tally of detainees on hunger strike.

The Washington Post editorial argues that the “tiny” military pension cut in the budget deal is a “good move,” noting that the “cut is an exceedingly modest one on a pension plan that is already far more generous than private-sector equivalents.”

The Lebanese army issued a statement this weekend stating that the suspected leader of an al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group, Majed al-Majed died at a military hospital “after deterioration in his health” [CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark and Mohammed Jamjoom]. Al-Majed had been arrested and detained after his group claimed responsibility for last month’s suicide bombings at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Juba this morning for talks with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir over the conflict in the country [BBC]. No substantive progress has been made at the ceasefire talks in Ethiopia, which have been delayed due to disagreements between the rival sides. Meanwhile, violent clashes continue in the country.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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