News Roundup and Notes: January 10, 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

Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris covers yesterday’s meetings at the White House on the potential reform of NSA surveillance. President Obama met with members of Congress to discuss the issues, but “kept his cards close to the vest in terms of what the reform will look like,” according to Rep. Adam Schiff. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte issued a statement following the meeting, stating “it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action to reform some of our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans’ civil liberties and operate in a sensible manner.” He added:

“In particular, if the President believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security.  The President has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness.”

White House officials also met with privacy and civil liberties groups, who reiterated their call to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. The Hill (Kate Tummarello) provides more details on yesterday’s meetings.

A classified Pentagon report provides an assessment of the damage caused by Edward Snowden’s leaks [Politico’s Leigh Munsil]. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers has said that the report, which was sent to Congress on Monday, concludes that Snowden’s actions “are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.” The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian and Richard A. Serrano) also covers the development.

The New York Times (Peter Baker and Charlie Savage) covers the challenges facing Obama as he tries to navigate a “middle course that will satisfy protesting national security agencies while tamping down criticism by civil liberties advocates.” For instance, FBI Director James Comey voiced opposition to a key recommendation of the president review group yesterday, stating, “their suggestion that we impose a judicial procedure on [National Security Letters] … would actually make it harder for us to do national security investigations than bank fraud investigations.”

Yesterday’s Roundup covered AP’s report on President Obama’s expected reforms of the NSA, including tighter restrictions on U.S. spying on foreign leaders. The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman and Carol E. Lee) provides more details on the proposed changes, which are expected to be announced as early as next week, according to officials familiar with the process.

In a memo to President Obama, four former NSA employees “explain how NSA leaders botched intelligence collection and analysis before 9/11, covered up the mistakes, and violated the constitutional rights of the American people” [ConsortiumNews]. In an op-ed in Aljazeera America, Matthew Harwood argues that the NSA “makes the nation insecure.”

And European Parliament’s Justice and Civil Liberties Committee has voted in favour of inviting Edward Snowden to testify via video-link as part of the committee’s investigation into the privacy of EU citizens [New York Times’ Dan Bilefsky].

Afghanistan

ICYMI, yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered the release of 72 prisoners, deemed dangerous by the U.S., “intensifying his showdown with Obama administration officials after weeks of warnings that he risked losing American troop support” [New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg]. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a statement expressing concern over Afghanistan’s decision. They stated, “All we are asking is to follow the Afghan rule of law and not allow extrajudicial releases.”

The lead negotiator on the Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham has warned the Obama administration that Karzai is unlikely to sign the document within the U.S. timetable, according to officials [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung et al.].

And Newsweek’s Jeff Stein covers Pentagon’s former top expert on Afghanistan, David Sedney’s charge that “the most recent gloomy intelligence report on the future of [Afghanistan] was cooked up and leaked by administration officials trying to lay the groundwork for a quicker exit from the war there.”

Iraq

The Washington Post (Ernesto Londoño) covers criticisms leveled against the Obama administration yesterday in relation to the militant uprising in Iraq. House Speaker John A. Boehner, for instance, called on Obama to “get engaged,” instead of spending “time and energy” explaining why the Iraqi violence “is not the president’s problem.” White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed the criticisms, stating that the Obama administration remains committed to Iraq’s success.

Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin defended the administration amid “blistering attacks from House and Senate Republicans,” noting that the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq was due to “the Iraqi government’s refusal to agree to legal protections for residual U.S. troops, whatever their number” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. And Politico (Philip Ewing and Juana Summers) considers that “[the] crisis in Iraq may have to get a lot hotter before it raises the mercury inside the White House.”

Defense officials have said that the U.S. military is pushing to resume training of Iraqi commandos to equip Baghdad in its fight against extremists [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes]. The training is likely to take place in Jordan so that U.S. troops will not need to re-enter Iraq.

In Baghdad, a suicide bomber targeted men volunteering to join the regime forces yesterday, killing at least 23 army recruits [Reuters’ Alistair Lyon].

Syria

The Obama administration is considering resuming nonlethal military assistance to Syria’s moderate opposition, “even if some of it ends up going to the Islamist groups that are allied with the moderates,” reports the New York Times (Mark Landler).

According to senior intelligence officials, extremist groups in Syria are attempting to recruit Americans and other foreigners, and train them to conduct terrorist attacks when they return to their home countries [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt]. FBI Director James Comey told reporters yesterday that the agency is prioritizing tracking those returning from Syria.

On the battlefield, a car bomb in the central province of Hama has killed at least 18 people [Al Jazeera]. And according to state media reports, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime have killed dozens of rebels who were attempting to break an army siege in the Syrian city of Homs [Reuters].

Iran

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) notes that 53 lawmakers have now signed on to the measure from Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk calling for new sanctions against Iran, “complicating the Obama administration’s efforts to avoid a vote on legislation it claims could derail nuclear talks.”

In op-ed in the Washington Post, Sen. Robert Menendez writes that while “diplomatic breakthrough … is the preferred outcome,” additional prospective sanctions provide a “diplomatic insurance policy” and is “an act of reasonable pragmatism.”

And while talks with Iran resumed yesterday, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the U.S.’s human rights record, and suggested that the nuclear talks illustrated American hostility toward Iran and Islam, according to official news media [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone and Thomas Erdbrink].

South Sudan

National Security Adviser Susan Rice has demanded that the rival parties in the South Sudan conflict sign “immediately the cessation of hostilities.” The U.S. also called upon South Sudan President Salva Kiir to release political detainees immediately, “so that they can participate in the political negotiations.”

The New York Times’ Eric Schmitt covers how the U.S. mission in South Sudan revealed the “limitations of American military power there and highlight the remaining gaps in intelligence and communications,” accorder to commanders and analysts.

Other developments

The Miami Herald (Carol Rosenberg) covers Pentagon’s announcement that the Guantánamo periodic review board’s first review process has approved the transfer of a Yemeni detainee.

The Associated Press (Lolita C. Baldor) reports that Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, has said that Pentagon is planning to begin a 24-week training program for up to 8,000 Libyan soldiers by midyear, to boost the country’s security.

Former FBI agent David Gomez responds in Foreign Policy to The Cable’s take on the FBI’s recently altered “primary function.” Gomez argues that the FBI “is and always has been an agency devoted to protecting America’s national security,” but notes that “[the] real problem is that Congress, through the budgetary process and the power of the purse, mandated counterterrorism as the top-funded FBI investigative program after 9/11.”

The U.S. has challenged a new Chinese law restricting foreign fishing vessels in disputed waters in the South China Sea as “provocative and potentially dangerous” [Al Jazeera]. China reportedly rejected U.S. criticism of its new law earlier today [Reuters].

The Kenyan military has announced that it carried out an air strike on an al-Shabaab camp in Somalia yesterday, killing 30 militants, including al-Shabaab commanders [BBC].

FBI Director James Comey has told reporters that the FBI is sending dozens of agents and other specialists to Russia to help secure the Winter Olympics from potential terrorist attacks [Wall Street Journal’s Devlin Barrett].

The Indian diplomat at the center of the diplomatic row with the U.S. has left for India under diplomatic immunity, after being indicted on federal counts of visa fraud and making false statements [CNN’s Jethro Mullen et al.].

Al Jazeera has condemned the continued detention of its journalists in Egypt, who have now been remanded to 15 more days in custody, according to the prosecutor.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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