News Roundup and Notes: January 24, 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 White House has expressed disagreement with an important conclusion of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) on the NSA’s bulk telephony metadata collection program [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday, “On the issue of [Section] 215, we simply disagree with the board’s analysis on the legality of the program … The administration believes that the program is lawful.”

The Hill (Kate Tummarello) covers how the group’s report is the “last straw” on the NSA surveillance program for some lawmakers. And ICYMI, check out posts on the PCLOB’s conclusions from Barry Friedman, Jameel Jaffer, and Thomas Earnest on Just Security yesterday.

The New York Times editorial board covers the PCLOB’s findings, and notes that the “growing agreement among those who have studied the program closely makes it imperative that the administration, along with the program’s defenders in Congress, explain why such intrusive mass surveillance is necessary at all.”

In an interview with MSNBC’s Ari Melber, Attorney General Eric Holder said that granting clemency to Edward Snowden would be “going too far,” but indicated that if Snowden’s lawyers sought a deal with some accountability, he would “engage in conversations” as in any plea negotiation. Meanwhile, in a live webchat, Snowden said, “Returning to the [U.S.], I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself.”

The European Court of Human Rights has asked the UK government to provide submissions on whether GCHQ’s surveillance activities could be in violation of the right to private life under the European Convention on Human Rights [The Guardian’s Nick Hopkins]. The request forms part of the proceedings in the legal challenge brought by privacy and rights groups against government surveillance.

Syria

Syria’s rival parties are due to begin formal peace talks in Geneva today [BBC]. The government and opposition delegations will be in separate rooms and conduct negotiations through a UN mediator. Yesterday, Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba laid out his demands for negotiations, including the creation of a transitional government that does not include President Bashar al-Assad [Reuters’ John Irish and Mariam Karouny]. Jarba added that he had been given assurances from Moscow, the regime’s main backer, that it was not “holding on” to Assad.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has released an audio message, calling on the rival Syrian opposition factions “to stop the fighting between the brothers of jihad and Islam immediately,” to form an arbitration council to resolve their differences and to establish “a mechanism to compel everyone to abide” by the council’s rulings [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung].

The New York Times (Katrin Bennhold and Michael R. Gordon) reports on the conflicting accounts given by Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of Iran’s role in the Syrian war.

And The Economist covers how “President Bashar Assad’s hopes are rising that he may be able to use the conference in Geneva to bolster the legitimacy of his regime.”

Iran

The White House responded yesterday to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s comments accusing the administration of overstating concessions under the interim nuclear deal [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. Press secretary Jay Carney stated, “How Iranian officials characterize this for a domestic audience matters far less to us than what they’re actually doing.”

The New York Times (Rick Gladstone) reports that the administration intensified efforts yesterday to counter a misimpression that the interim deal had opened up new economic opportunities with Iran. In particular, the Treasury Department announced “a landmark $152 million settlement” with Clearstream Banking for having allowed Iran to evade sanctions through the use of the company’s access to the American banking system.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country was “ready” to negotiate a final deal, arguing, “if we remain serious and keep the will, we can push through” [Washington Post’s Martin Baron and Anne Gearan]. The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon) covers how the Middle East turmoil dominated yesterday’s meeting in Davos, with the Israeli and Iranian leaders using the forum to engage in diplomacy.

Iraq

Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi has said that he and the Obama administration are “in total agreement” about the need to permanently integrate the country’s Sunni tribal forces into the Iraqi armed forces [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Ernesto Londoño].

The Justice Department has filed a complaint against Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc. and two foreign companies for kickbacks and false claims relating to a contract with the Army to provide logistical support in Iraq.

Other developments

Three suspected al-Qaeda militants were killed in Yemen’s Maarib province last night by a U.S. drone strike, according to local officials and tribal sources [Reuters].

The Washington Post’s Adam Goldman provides a “hidden history” of the CIA’s secret prison or “black site” in Poland, including a transfer of $15 million in cash that sealed the deal between the two countries.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the strategic nuclear deterrence forces and their ability to carry out their mission, following the recent reports of drug use and cheating inside the force. The Washington Post (Craig Whitlock) has more details.

The State Department has designated Ziyad al-Nakhalah, Deputy Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.

According to a senior official, Secretary of State John Kerry “will make the argument that the myth of disengagement—and particularly the notion that the United States is pulling back from the Middle East—is not only false, but flies in the face of several major diplomatic initiatives in the region” during his speech at the Davos meeting today [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

Reuters (Andrea Shalal-Esa) notes that a new Defense Department report warns that software and maintenance problems with Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealth fighter could delay the Marine Corps’ plans to start using its F-35 jets by mid-2015.

Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, has said that he expects “more suicide-type, high-profile, spectacular attacks” in Afghanistan, as U.S. forces prepare to leave the country [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

Accused 9/11 conspirator, Ramzi bin al Shibh reportedly declined to meet with members of the military mental health review panel last week, which is required to determine if he is competent to stand trial [AP].

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the rival forces in South Sudan, following three-weeks of mediated talks in Addis Ababa [UN News Centre]. President Obama also welcomed the agreement as “a critical first step toward building a lasting peace.”

At least four people have been killed in a series of three bomb blasts in Cairo early this morning, which appeared to be targeting the police [Al Jazeera].

North Korea’s National Defense Commission has reportedly written to South Korea, expressing its intention “to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and unity,” but reiterates its calls for the U.S.-South Korean military drills to be halted [CNN’s Greg Botelho].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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