News Roundup and Notes: January 16, 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.

Drones

The Washington Post’s Greg Miller reports that Congress has included a provision in a classified annex to the government spending bill to block President Obama’s plan to transfer control of the U.S. drones program from the CIA to the Defense Department. According to U.S. officials, the provision restricts the use of any funding to transfer drones from the CIA to the Pentagon. Miller writes that the move “reflects some lawmakers’ lingering doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes … without hitting the wrong targets and killing civilians.”

Benghazi attacks

ICYMI, yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, concluding that they “were likely preventable based on the known security shortfalls at the U.S. Mission and the significant strategic (although not tactical) warnings from the Intelligence Community about the deteriorating security situation in Libya.” The New York Times (Mark Mazzetti et al.), Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) and Washington Post (Adam Goldman and Anne Gearan) provide detailed coverage of the committee’s conclusions.

Politico (Ginger Gibson) covers the reactions of Republican lawmakers to the report, several of whom have criticized the report. Rep. Louie Gohmert, for instance, claimed that there are too many unanswered questions for the committee to have produced a comprehensive report.

And the State Department has published an update on the actions it has taken to comply with the 24 unclassified recommendations of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board.

NSA Surveillance

CBS News (Major Garrett) reports that President Obama is likely to largely preserve the NSA surveillance program, but will bolster oversight, including higher level approval of surveillance of foreign leaders and the introduction of a privacy advocate within FISC proceedings. These details were provided by sources briefed on a memo presented to Obama by his national security team.

The Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima and David Nakamura) notes that according to officials familiar with the administration’s plans, Obama will announce some new limits to the NSA program, but will ask Congress to weigh in on the future of the surveillance operations.

The Wall Street Journal editorial warns against “Obama’s retreat” on surveillance, including his plan to extend privacy protections to foreigners, which it considers “radical, and dangerous, even for allies.” The editorial calls for “Republican maturity” so as to “mitigate the damage so the next President is not permanently weaker.”

The New York Times’ Peter Baker maps Obama’s path “from critic to overseer of spying.” And Cameron F. Kerry explains why “NSA overreach is bad for business too,” noting that the fallout over NSA spying has “damaged America’s brand and the brand of U.S. companies—and that has cost real money, with estimates of losses … ranging from $25 billion to $180 billion over three years” [Politico Magazine].

Iran

Obama met with Senate Democrats yesterday, where he delivered a “strong message” to lawmakers to hold off on new Iran sanctions while negotiations continue, according to a source briefed on the White House meeting [Politico’s Burgess Everett]. Sen. Jeff Merkley also said that the general mood at the meeting was “quite supportive” of Obama’s position.

Meanwhile, The Hill (Julian Pecquet) has learned that Sens. Marco Rubio and James Risch are holding up a vote on a State Department nominee, Puneet Talwar due to his involvement in backchannel talks with Iran.

Syria

Following yesterday’s claims by the Assad regime that Western intelligence officials were co-operating with Damascus on combating extremists in the country, European diplomats confirmed last evening that officials had visited Damascus, but only to seek information on kidnapped citizens [Washington Post’s Liz Sly].

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf confirmed yesterday that the U.S. has not been involved in the alleged discussions or visits. Harf said, “we clearly consider the terrorist threat inside Syria to be of serious concern. But it’s absurd to consider Assad or the regime a partner in countering that threat.”

Russia has denied that it has a “hidden agenda” on Syria as it hosts the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers for a fresh round of talks, ahead of next week’s peace talks [AFP]. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took to Twitter today to explain why it does not think Iran should have to specifically confirm its support of the Geneva Communiqué [here, here and here].

The Wall Street Journal (Farnaz Fassihi) reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is lobbying Middle Eastern leaders to accept Tehran’s position on Syria. According to Zarif’s plans, the war must end through negotiations, foreign nations should only play an advisory role, and Syrians should decide upon their future through elections.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it was a “serious mistake” for the Obama administration to declare a “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons (Rebecca Ballhaus).

And at least $2.4 billion has been pledged by international donors at a conference in Kuwait in response to the UN’s appeals for urgent funds to aid the Syrian crisis [UN News Centre].

Iraq

Bomb attacks and shootings killed at least 75 people in Iraq yesterday, marking “one of the bloodiest days in months” [Reuters’ Alistair Lyon]. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made an announcement on state television calling for world support. He said, “If we keep silent it means the creation of evil statelets that would wreak havoc with security in the region and the world.”

In a separate development, a Pentagon spokesperson has announced that the U.S. military is investigating photos that appear to show Marines burning the bodies of dead Iraqi militants, which were published on the TMZ website [Washington Post’s William Branigin]. The photos were reportedly taken in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.

Afghanistan

The U.S. military has obtained a video of a U.S. soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents for the past four and a half years, which shows that the soldier is alive but in declining health [New York Times’ Thom Shanker].

AFP (Usman Sharif) reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. of killing eight civilians, mostly children, in an airstrike in central Afghanistan yesterday. A statement from Karzai’s office said:

“The Afghan government has been asking for a complete end to operations in Afghan villages for years, but American forces acting against all mutual agreements … have once again bombarded a residential area and killed civilians.”

Other developments

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled yesterday that a former driver for Osama bin Laden, Salim Hamdan, as well as a witness linked to the “shoe-bomber” plot may testify by video at the trial of bin Laden’s son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith [Reuters’ Jonathan Stempel].

Thirty-four U.S. nuclear missile launch officers have been implicated in a cheating scandal, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said yesterday [DoD News]. The cheating was discovered during an investigation into a drug scandal, and all 34 officers have been decertified and restricted from missile crew duty. The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock has more on this development.

The Justice Department is planning to expand its definition of racial profiling to prohibit federal agents from considering religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation in their investigations, but it is unclear whether the rules will also apply to national security investigations [New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo].

Wired (David Kravets) covers Rahinah Ibrahim’s successful challenge to her placement on the U.S. no-fly list. The full ruling is being kept classified.

North Korea has demanded that the U.S. and South Korea halt annual military drills scheduled for February and March, stating that the exercises may push north-south ties to a “catastrophe” [Reuters’].

The New York Times editorial comments on the “mixed results for Mideast democracy.” The editorial notes that while Tunisia is “providing a constructive path” to the goal of democracy, Egypt is “on the verge of enacting a Constitution that would … further enable the kind of authoritarian system that the 2011 revolution was intended to displace.” The Associated Press reports that a freelance cameraman, covering Egypt’s referendum for the AP, was detained by the country’s police yesterday.

The trial of four men accused of murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has begun at the special tribunal at the Hague, with the prosecutor’s opening statement outlining how the attackers intended to send “a terrifying message and to cause panic among the population of Beirut and Lebanon” [BBC]. Meanwhile, a car bomb has exploded in a northeastern Lebanese town today, with several people reported dead [Al Jazeera].

Israel intercepted five rockets fired from the Gaza Strip earlier today, and the military responded with a series of air strikes on the Hamas-controlled territory [Reuters].

If you want to receive your news directly to your inbox, sign up here for the Just Security Early Edition. For the latest information from Just Security, follow us on Twitter (@just_security) and join the conversation on Facebook. To submit news articles and notes for inclusion in our daily post, please email us at news@justsecurity.org. Don’t forget to visit The Pipeline for a preview of upcoming events and blog posts on U.S. national security. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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