News Roundup and Notes: January 17, 2014

The Just Security team will be off on Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The News Roundup will be back on Tuesday morning. Here’s today’s news.

Surveillance

This morning, McClatchy DC (Anita Kumar) reports that President Obama will call for “significant changes to the federal government’s bulk phone collection program.” According to a senior administration official, “he is ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 telephone metadata program as it currently exists, and move to a program that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data.”

Earlier, The Hill’s Justin Sink reported that President Obama is expected to announce “modest reforms.” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that Obama’s analysis “starts from the absolute commitment to maintaining the security of the American people … as well as the commitments we have to our allies.”

The Wall Street Journal (Carol E. Lee and Siobhan Gorman) reports that as of last evening, Obama was still “wrestling with the most controversial question” of how to manage the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata, according to administration officials.

Obama spoke with UK Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, during which he updated Cameron “on the ongoing U.S. signals intelligence review” and both leaders noted “the intensive dialogue that the United States and United Kingdom have had on these issues, at all levels.”

Politico (Darren Samuelsohn) covers how the public is “still not sure what to make of secret government operations gobbling up their raw telephone records and emails sent to foreigners abroad – and that mixed message makes it all the more difficult for politicians to coalesce around policy.”

ICYMI, yesterday, The Guardian (James Ball) reported that the NSA “has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details.” According to top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, the NSA program, codenamed “Dishfire,” involves the collection of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications. A program known as “Prefer” then conducts automated analysis on the untargeted communications. The Guardian also provides key texts from the NSA Dishfire presentation.

And Just Security’s David Cole, writing in The New York Review of Books, questions what we should make of “the three leakers”–Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.

Afghanistan

The Wall Street Journal (Dion Nissenbaum et al.) reports that Vice President Joe Biden’s arguments for a “far-smaller presence” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan “have gained traction within an administration increasingly frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.” According to officials, Biden is suggesting a force of 2,000-3,000 troops, while some defense officials prefer a post-2014 U.S. force of 9,000-12,000.

NATO officials have also expressed frustration with Kabul’s delays on a security pact with NATO, “warning that further delays will make it difficult to persuade Europe to support a deal” [Wall Street Journal’s Margherita Stancati]. The agreement with NATO is supposed to mirror the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which Karzai has so far refused to sign.

Iran

The White House provided Congress with the full text of the interim nuclear deal with Iran yesterday [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. The White House also released a “Summary of technical understandings related to the implementation of the [Geneva deal]” to the general public.

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) covers the renewed push from Republican senators to move on further Iran sanctions, following yesterday’s briefing by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on the interim nuclear deal. For instance, after hearing the details, Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “I’m more disturbed now than ever.”

The New York Times (Mark Landler) covers the Senate bill on new Iran sanctions, noting that the reason it “so worries the White House, is that it lays down the contours of an acceptable final nuclear deal.” According to administration officials, many of the conditions are unrealistic, thus setting Obama up for failure.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Iranian television this week, the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi said Tehran could resume enriching uranium to 20 percent levels “in less than one day” if it believes the other parties are acting against their commitments [Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin].

The Wall Street Journal (Naftali Bendavid) reports on how a group of European industries, ranging from insurance to precious metals, will benefit from the easing of EU sanctions against Iran on Monday, according to details provided by EU officials.

Syria

The divided Syrian opposition is meeting today in Istanbul to decide whether to participate in next week’s Geneva II peace talks [AFP]. On the eve of the Syrian National Coalition’s meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry called for a “positive vote,” noting that the talks offer “the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution.” Kerry promised, “any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side, whether President Assad or a member of the opposition, cannot be a part of the future.”

However, an internal opposition group within the Coalition already rejected participating in the peace conference yesterday [The Daily Star]. An executive member of the group, the National Coordination Body, questioned how they could create “a unified delegation with a unified democratic platform four days before an international conference.” He added, “The Geneva conference as planned now will fail.”

Speaking in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that he is prepared to offer a prisoner exchange with rebels, and has presented a ceasefire plan to Russia for the Syrian city of Aleppo [BBC]. While the New York Times (Anne Barnard) reports that according to Syrian rebels, ceasefire deals have proved to be deceptive.

Al Jazeera has obtained a letter from the Syrian Foreign Minister to the UN that appears to set conditions for the talks. The letter reportedly notes disagreement with certain points in the invitation letter to the peace conference, and demands that “the countries supporting terrorism cease and refrain from funding, training, arming or harboring terrorist groups in harmony with international law and UN resolutions.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned armed rebels groups yesterday that the “execution of civilians and individuals no longer participating in hostilities is a clear violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes.”

And the OPCW has announced that the trans-loading of Syrian chemicals onto the U.S. ship will be undertaken at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro.

Benghazi

The New York Times editorial board welcomes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, writing that while it is “broadly consistent” with previous findings, “it contributes to a better understanding of what happened and why and what must be done to mitigate the chances of its happening again.”

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein defended Hillary Clinton after some Republican senators used the Benghazi report to criticize Clinton yesterday. Feinstein said that any statements assigning culpability to Clinton are “patently false.”

And New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson defended her paper’s reporting on Benghazi as “unassailable” after harsh criticism from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham following the release of the Senate committee’s report [Politico’s Hadas Gold].

According to newly declassified transcripts from congressional hearings, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey has said that the Pentagon cannot hunt those responsible for the Benghazi attacks because the groups are not covered by the AUMF, as they are not officially deemed members or affiliates of al-Qaeda [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stated that he has asked the U.S. government for further assistance, including arms and U.S. counterterrorism training, to combat the resurgence of al-Qaeda-linked militants in his country’s Anbar province [Washington Post’s Loveday Morris and Ernesto Londoño].

Other developments

Sens. John McCain and Tim Kaine unveiled a measure yesterday that seeks to repeal the 1973 War Powers Resolution, and replace it with a new law that requires greater consultation as well as a congressional vote within 30 days on any “‘significant armed conflict,’ or, combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than seven days” [AP’s Donna Cassata].

The DOD Inspector General welcomes and explains the expansions of protections for military & nonappropriated fund whistleblowers contained in the 2014 NDAA.

The U.S. Navy has relieved a top enlisted crewmember of the USS Cole of his duties following a command investigation into an inappropriate relationship with a junior sailor [Stars and Stripes’ Audrea Huff].

In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria covers why “the last thing the [Middle East] needs is more U.S. intervention,” arguing that the “tensions are rooted in history and politics and will not easily go away.”

Egypt’s state media reported yesterday that the country approved the new constitution by an “unprecedented majority,” with around 90% support among those who voted in the referendum [Reuters’ Tom Perry and Maggie Fick]. The New York Times (David D. Kirkpatrick) covers how the authorities continued to crackdown on journalists and dissenters, which according to human rights advocates “belied the charter’s promises of free speech.”

The State Department has expressed “deep concern” over Ukraine’s new controversial measures, which will “restrict the right to peacefully protest and exercise the freedom of speech, constrain independent media, and inhibit the operation of NGOs.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the BBC that the UK would not have “the ability to be a full [U.S.] partner as they have been in the past” due to defense cuts in the country. UK Prime Minister David Cameron disagreed with Gates’ assessment, stating that the UK remains a “first class-player in terms of defence.”

South Korea rejected calls from the North to halt its military drills with the U.S., stating that as “a democratic country … we do not engage in preemptive strikes” [Reuters].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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