News Roundup and Notes: January 23, 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

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has concluded that the NSA’s bulk phone call records collection program is illegal, has provided only “minimal” counterterrorism benefits, and should be shut down [New York Times’ Charlie Savage]. The findings of the independent federal privacy watchdog, scheduled to be released later today, are “likely to inject a significant new voice into the debate over surveillance.”

A major independent two-year inquiry into the future of the internet, in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, was announced at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos yesterday [The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill].  The commission will be headed by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and will include a 25-member panel of politicians, academics and former intelligence officials from around the world. Also at the Davos meeting, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer called on the Obama administration to provide greater transparency on the NSA’s data collection, citing the “need to be able to rebuild trust with our users, not only in the U.S. but internationally” [Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein].

According to a new Fox News poll, 50% of voters think the NSA’s surveillance program is more likely to help catch terrorists and protect Americans from additional attacks, while 44% think the program is more likely to hurt citizens by using private information improperly.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse provides her take on Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court, and technology.

The Justice Department accused USIS–the government’s largest private security background check contractor–of defrauding the country of millions of dollars by filing more than 660,000 flawed background checks [Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum]. USIS conducted the background investigation for Edward Snowden in 2011, which federal officials say was faulty.

Syria

As the international peace conference on Syria enters day two, AFP reports on yesterday’s events, noting that the warring sides show “no willingness to compromise” on ending the crisis. While Syrian officials insisted Bashar al-Assad would not step down and labeled the opposition “traitors,” the opposition Syrian National Coalition called on the regime to give up power.

Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the demands of the opposition, stating yesterday, “There is no way – no way possible in the imagination – that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.”

The BBC reports that UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is scheduled to hold separate talks with the rival Syrian delegations today to assess their willingness to participate in face-to-face negotiations.

And a UN mediator has said that despite the mutual hostility at yesterday’s conference, the rival sides may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid [Reuters’ Gabriela Baczynska and Stephanie Nebehay].

The Associated Press covers the absence of Iran at the Syria talks, noting that the “absence of Damascus’ strongest regional ally stood out even more given that the biggest supporters of the opposition were all present: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.”

However, at a press conference last evening, Kerry appeared open to the possibility of Iran joining the peace efforts. He said:

“Iran certainly does have an ability to be able to help make a difference … There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks and months, and my hope is that they will want to join in a constructive solution.”

The Washington Post editorial board considers that Kerry’s diplomatic initiative “offers no means” to hold the Syrian regime accountable for the atrocities reported earlier this week. The editorial also adds that Obama’s refusal “to consider options between Mr. Kerry’s feckless diplomacy and an Iraq-style invasion only ensures that the Geneva 2 conference will fail and that the atrocities will continue.”

The Wall Street Journal (Jess Bravin) reports that dozens of investigators, funded by the U.S. and its allies, have been collecting evidence of suspected war crimes in Syria for nearly two years. According to U.S. officials, the evidence has created a real-time record of war crimes, which could help prosecutors build their case. The New York Times (Mark Landler and Ben Hubbard) also notes that according to a senior official, the U.S. first learned about the photographs documenting widespread torture last November. According to officials, the administration believes the photos are genuine, but did not act earlier because it did not possess the files and could not establish their authenticity.

And interviews by The Daily Beast (Jamie Dettmer) reveal that Western captives abducted in northern Syria are being moved by jihadists further into Islamist-held Syrian territory. According to security experts and Western intelligence sources, the captives are being transported closer to the Iraqi border in an operation directed by a Chechen commander.

Guantánamo

Turkish counterterrorism forces have reportedly arrested former Guantánamo detainee, Ibrahim Sen during raids against suspected al-Qaeda members earlier this month [The Long War Journal Thomas Joscelyn].

The Guardian (Spencer Ackerman) covers the decision of the American Psychological Association to drop the complaint against Dr. John Leso over his role in the interrogation of suspected 9/11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantánamo Bay.

Afghanistan

Al Jazeera America reports that the Afghan government has banned a series of television advertisements that urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. The government has launched an investigation into how the advertisements were funded.

The Wall Street Journal (Margherita Stancati and Yaroslav Trofimov) covers how some of America’s allies “have begun exploring other ways to keep U.S.-led forces in [Afghanistan]” as several senior Western diplomats have concluded that Karzai is unlikely to sign the BSA with the U.S.

Iran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN (Jim Sciutto) yesterday that the Obama administration has mischaracterized concessions by his side under the interim nuclear deal and that Iran “did not agree to dismantle anything.” Zarif said, “The White House version both underplays the concessions and overplays Iranian commitments” and added that “we are not dismantling any centrifuges, we’re not dismantling any equipment, we’re simply not producing, not enriching over 5%.”

The Washington Post (Greg Sargent) reports that two prominent Senators, Patty Murray and Elizabeth Warren, have joined the list of lawmakers who oppose a vote on an Iran sanctions bill right now.

The New York Times (Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce) covers the “new push” to release a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Tehran over two years ago, with advocates “seeking to use a diplomatic window created by the temporary nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Other developments

The Israeli Security Agency announced yesterday that it had arrested three Palestinians who were recruited by an al-Qaeda operative, and were preparing to carry out attacks on multiple targets, including the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv [Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Lappin]. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that the U.S. is looking into the threats, but that it did not have independent verification of the specifics as yet.

The New York Times (Helene Cooper) reports that according to crew members and instructors, cheating has been common among America’s nuclear launch officers for decades. Members say that while they know their test material, the grading standards are unreasonably high, and that there is no potential for a nuclear mistake being made in practice.

Ukrainian opposition leaders have issued a 24 hour ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych to call early elections or face further opposition, after at least two protesters were killed in confrontations yesterday [AP].

The UK parliament’s joint committee on human rights has said that a wide-ranging review of the country’s counter-terrorism powers is urgently needed and notes that existing measures are due to expire shortly [The Guardian’s Alan Travis].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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