News Roundup and Notes: January 15, 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 New York Times (David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker) reports that the NSA “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.” According to NSA documents, computer experts and U.S. officials, the NSA increasingly relies on a “covert channel of radio waves” that enables it to access computers even if they are not connected to the Internet.

ICYMI, yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Report of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. [Check out Just Security’s Thomas Earnest’s post from last night on some of the notable moments.] Politico (Josh Gerstein), The Hill (Julian Hattem) and Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) provide details of the hearing, where the review group members testified regarding their proposed reforms and recommendations for national security surveillance programs.

According to a letter sent to Congress on Monday, FISC judges have warned against two of the reforms recommended by the review group: the proposal to introduce a privacy and civil liberties advocate in FISC proceedings and the proposal to require a judicial sign-off on National Security Letters. Foreign Policy (Shane Harris) and Politico (Josh Gerstein) have more on this development.

A new report from the Center for Security Policy critiques the President’s review group’s recommendations, arguing that they would “seriously weaken the program’s effectiveness and would create real privacy concerns by having private parties – in addition to telephone companies – hold telephone metadata of Americans instead of NSA.”

NSA Director Keith Alexander has provided a further response to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wrote a letter earlier this month asking if the agency had spied on members of Congress [The Hill’s Mario Trujillo]. Alexander said his agency could only access records reasonably suspected to be associated with foreign terrorist groups. He added, “For that reason, NSA cannot lawfully search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate.”

Meanwhile, the German government dismissed news reports yesterday that talks with Washington on a bilateral “no-spy” deal faced collapse [Reuters’ Erik Kirschbaum].

And Edward Snowden is joining the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in “the latest contribution to a public relations tug of war” between Snowden’s critics and supporters [New York Times’ Charlie Savage].

Iran

The New York Times editorial writes that the agreement with Iran could offer “the most significant restraint ever on a program that has threatened international stability since it was first disclosed in 2002” and calls upon critics of the deal, including Sen. Menendez, to “[come] to their senses.” The Washington Post editorial similarly asks Congress to let diplomacy on the Iran nuclear deal play out. The editorial notes that the senators “already may have accomplished the maximum good by proposing the bill, thereby raising the pressure on the administration and Iran,” while any further action “would be problematic.”

The Hill (Jeremy Herb) covers how Senate Democrats appear to be backing away from an immediate vote on the Iran sanctions legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that he wanted to “wait and see how this plays out” before moving forward with a vote. The Daily Beast (Josh Rogin) reports that as Reid backs away from an immediate vote, “advocates [of the sanctions bill] are shifting tactics and working with House leadership to pass it there first.”

And the New York Times (Rick Gladstone) covers the escalated lobbying over the proposed legislation, “with critics submitting a letter to lawmakers signed by 62 multifaith organizations urging a delay and supporters pointing to what they called Iran’s insincerity.”

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has criticized the administration for suggesting that supporters of further sanctions are calling for war, dismissing such remarks as “irresponsible” and demanding a retraction [Politico’s Ginger Gibson].

In a separate development, the White House has condemned the decision of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to place a wreath at the grave of Imad Mugniyah, a former leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, “responsible for heinous acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans.”

Syria

Syrian deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has told the BBC that Western intelligence officials have visited the Assad regime in Damascus for talks on countering radical Islamist groups in the country. A spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition has said that if the reports of the Assad government are true, “it would show a clear contradiction between the words and actions of the Friends of Syria group … [who had] clearly identified the Assad regime as a source of terrorism in the region.”

Israel-Palestine

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted by local media yesterday, stating, “American Secretary of State John Kerry, who turned up here determined and acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor, cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians” [CNN’s Steve Almasy]. The State Department reacted angrily, with spokesperson Marie Harf stating that the comments, if accurate, are “offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States has done to support Israel’s security needs and will continue to do.” Yaalon has since issued an apology, saying he had “no intention to cause any offence to the secretary” [AFP].

A senior Palestinian official has told Haaretz (Jack Khoury) that in the event that the peace negotiations break down, the Palestinian leadership will turn to the UN to raise its concerns.

Other developments

The Washington Post (Ernesto Londoño) reports that Iraq’s Sunni deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlak has stated that the U.S. has a “legal and moral responsibility” to remain engaged and help with the crisis in his country.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein has told The Hill (Julian Pecquet) that she disputes the conclusions of the New York Times report last month that al-Qaeda was not responsible for the 2012 Benghazi attack.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, has told Foreign Policy (Gordon Lubold) that the U.S. military will continue closing bases in Europe due to budget reductions.

The Washington Post (Craig Whitlock and Craig Timberg) reports that according to newly released records, border-patrol drones are being increasingly borrowed by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for domestic surveillance operations.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Yemeni Minister for Human Rights Hooria Mashhour speaks out against the U.S.’s drones policy in Yemen.

The New York Times (Somini Sengupta) and Wall Street Journal (Nour Malas) cover how the first trial of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will open this week amid political strife in the country.

Former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, writing in the Washington Post, proposes an “alternate approach” to concluding the bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan, including avoiding repeated suggestions that the U.S. might embrace the “zero option” and withdraw all troops at the end of the year.

Violence mars the Egyptian constitutional referendum vote, as at least 11 people were killed yesterday in clashes between the police and Muslim Brotherhood supporters [Al Jazeera America].

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank discusses the “label proliferation” of al-Qaeda. He writes that in most cases, “the original, ‘core’ al-Qaeda has no control over — or coordination with or financial ties to — these organizations,” the vast majority of which “are focused on domestic affairs in their own countries and are not primarily concerned with the United States or international terrorism.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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