News Roundup and Notes: January 8, 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.

Robert Gates’ memoir

ICYMI, there has been much coverage of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book–“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”–to be published next week. The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Gates’ book, which provides an account of his different experiences under the leaderships of Bush and Obama. Among other criticisms, Gates writes that President Obama’s “White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

Gates offers a harsh critique of Obama’s role in the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the President “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his” [Washington Post’s Bob Woodward]. Vice President Joe Biden is similarly criticized. While Gates calls Biden “a man of integrity,” he writes, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades” [New York Times’ Thom Shanker]. Gates also “dishes out withering criticism of what he calls rude and incompetent lawmakers in Congress divided by partisanship and unwilling to compromise” [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes and Peter Nicholas]. The Daily Beast (William O’ Connor) provides further details in its “speed read” of Gates’ memoir.

The White House was quick to respond to Gates’ critique and back Vice President Biden [Politico’s Jennifer Epstein]. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden stated:

The President disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment–from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world. President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.

On Afghanistan, Hayden said, “it is well known that the president has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year” [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

Iraq

The Obama administration has denied reports that it is working with Iran to support Iraq. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters, “let me be very clear here … we are not coordinating with Iran on any of these efforts.” Iran has similarly dismissed the reports of coordination in Iraq as “not true,” according to an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson [FARS News Agency].

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said yesterday that the U.S. should “wait and see” if it should send troops to Iraq and that now is “certainly not the time” [NBC News’ Courtney Kube and Tracy Connor].

On the battlefield, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has called upon Iraqi Sunnis to keep battling in the Anbar province [Al Jazeera]. Parts of the provincial capital Ramadi and all of Fallujah remain under the control of the insurgents, and violent clashes with the regime’s security forces continue.

In the media, Reuters (Missy Ryan) notes that while U.S. concerns about Iraq’s instability grow, “Washington’s ability to significantly increase security assistance to Baghdad will remain limited.” In an op-ed in the Washington Post, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey disagrees with Secretary of State John Kerry’s assessment of the conflict, arguing that “this is our fight.” Jeffrey writes that the Iraqi regime needs “not only the U.S. ‘multipliers’ …—more drones, accurate air-to-ground missiles, intelligence and some remedial training in counterterrorism operations and coordination—but also moral support.”

The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake covers how ISIL’s successful takeover of Fallujah last week, while a victory, “could also be the group’s Waterloo.” And The Economist argues that the trouble in Iraq is “out of control,” noting that the “Syria-hardened fighters” will not be easily frightened off.

Syria

ICYMI, yesterday, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria confirmed that “[a] first quantity of priority chemical materials was moved from two sites to the [Syrian] port of Lattakia for verification and was then loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel.”

The head of al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Nusra Front has called for a ceasefire between opposition forces, placing much of the blame for rebel in-fighting on the ISIL [Reuters]. The leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani has proposed forming “an independent legal council” of all the rebel factions and has asked fighters to return to the goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The Washington Post (Loveday Morris) covers how events in recent days have left ISIL “increasingly desperate,” while a coalition of more-moderate rebels appear to “hold the upper hand”–“a development that would come as a relief to Western governments that had become increasingly concerned about the gains made by the extremists.” The New York Times (Robert F. Worth) reports how individuals from Saudi Arabia have joined the Syrian rebels, despite fearing the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria’s civil war. And CNN (Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland) notes that according to news accounts, al-Qaeda now “appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.”

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) reports that a Senate hearing yesterday revealed “growing bipartisan support for allowing more Syrian refugees into the U.S.”

NSA Surveillance

President Obama will be inviting key lawmakers to the White House tomorrow to discuss the NSA’s surveillance programs, according to staffers [National Journal’s Dustin Volz]. The meeting is expected to be small, but will include the chairs and ranking members of each chamber’s Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, as well as other “key players” such as Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Ron Wyden, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) reports that according to current and former officials, the NSA, “in response to political and other pressures, is examining whether there are feasible ways for third parties such as phone companies to hold the data while allowing the agency to exploit the records.”

Lawmakers have introduced legislation in California that aims to block state utilities, services and other agencies from “materially supporting or assisting” the NSA in its surveillance operations [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

Bruce Schneier argues how the NSA threatens national security [The Atlantic]. He writes, “The more we choose to eavesdrop on the Internet and other communications technologies, the less we are secure from eavesdropping by others.” Wired’s Steven Levy covers how the “NSA almost killed the internet.” Levy provides an account of how the “tech titans  … had to fight for their lives against their own government” last year, and why the Internet “will never be the same.”

Other developments

A U.S. Air Force helicopter crashed during a “low-level” training exercise along the U.K. coast, which has killed four Air Force personnel [BBC].

NBC News (Michael Isikoff) reports that according to U.S. officials, the Obama administration has launched an investigation into the December drone strike in Yemen that allegedly targeted an al-Qaeda militant, but hit a wedding party, killing civilians.

U.S. officials suspect that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role in the 2012 Benghazi attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, and are reportedly planning to designate the group he heads as a foreign terrorist organization [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman].

The State Department has designated the Taliban shadow deputy governor, and an operational commander in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

The New York Times editorial writes that last week’s court ruling, which allows the Justice Department to keep secret a legal memo that supposedly authorizes the FBI’s surveillance operations, is “ the latest reminder that the Obama administration has failed to live up to [its] promise” of transparency.

Politico (Hadas Gold) reports that the U.S. Navy inadvertently sent a memo to an NBC reporter outlining how it intended to deter the reporter’s requests filed under the FOIA.

The Defense Department has announced that the U.S. will deploy around 800 soldiers and fighting vehicles to South Korea next month as part of its commitment to the country and “as specified by the mutual defense treaty and presidential agreements.”

TomDispatch’s Nick Turse covers the U.S. Special Operations Command’s “dreams of expansion on a global scale.”

World Politics Review (Eric Auner) reports that U.S. leaders are weighing America’s role in the unfolding crisis in South Sudan. Meanwhile, Kenya and Uganda have joined the diplomatic effort to broker a peaceful end to the South Sudan conflict [Wall Street Journal’s Patrick Mcgroarty et al.].

The Wall Street Journal (Joshua Mitnick) covers how Secretary of State John Kerry appears “to have won over an unlikely Israeli ally in his quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.”

The trial of Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi, scheduled to resume today, has been adjourned until February 1 as bad weather prevented Morsi from being brought before court this morning, according to state media reports [Al Jazeera].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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