News Roundup and Notes: February 4, 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

Tech companies began to release data yesterday about the number of government requests they receive for user data [Reuters]. Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said they “have not received the type of bulk data requests that are commonly discussed publicly regarding telephone records,” with FISA court orders requesting content of 15,000 to 15,999 user accounts during the first six months of 2013. Google said that between 9,000 and 9,999 of its users’ accounts were affected; Facebook said it received requests for between 5,000 to 5,999 accounts; and Yahoo said between 30,000 and 30,999 of accounts received FISA requests for content.

The Wall Street Journal (Michael Hickins) covers how the NSA’s activities have given foreign governments “an opening to restrict U.S. technology companies, which some foreign politicians have depicted as too compliant with or complicit in the spying.”

Larry Klayman, who won the first court ruling questioning the legality of the NSA’s bulk data collection program, has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to deviate from normal appellate practice and determine the case, given its “imperative public importance” [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

In Germany, two organizations have filed a criminal complaint against Chancellor Angela Merkel and members of her government, accusing them of helping U.S. and British intelligence agencies to spy on German citizens [New York Times’ Melissa Eddy].

Syria

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have said that in a closed doors meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional delegation that President Obama’s policy on Syria is not working and that it may be time to consider arming the moderate Syrian rebel groups [Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg].

The Obama administration has sought to defend its position on Syria and dispute the reports [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the White House continues to believe in a “negotiated political settlement” and denied that Kerry suggested arming and training rebel groups. State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki also said the reported statements were a “mischaracterization” [Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt]. She added, “This is a case of members projecting what they want to hear and not stating the accurate facts of what was discussed.”

The Washington Post editorial board writes that if Kerry’s reported comments are accurate, he “would deserve credit for finally recognizing realities that he and President Obama have glossed over for too long.” The editorial argues that “it is time for the Obama administration to reconsider how it can check the regime’s crimes and the growing threat of al-Qaeda.”

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued a statement yesterday publicly disavowing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) [Al Jazeera America]. According to the statement, ISIL “is not a branch of the Al-Qaeda group” and al-Qaeda “did not approve of the creation of, nor did it control” the group. State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said that the announcement “doesn’t change our view” of the group, noting that “both [ISIL] and al-Nusrah are designated terrorist organizations.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has told state media that the Syrian regime is planning “a large shipment” of chemical weapons out of the country this month, and would complete the process by March 1 [BBC]. Moscow also confirmed this morning that the Syrian government delegation would attend the next session of peace talks.

On the ground, a further round of barrel bomb raids in Aleppo yesterday has killed at least 26 people [CNN’s Salma Abdelziz and Yousuf Basil].

Iraq

The Wall Street Journal (Dion Nissenbaum) covers how the role of U.S. contractors is growing as the U.S. government is expected to provide more help to Iraq’s military in their battle against the Islamist insurgents.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defense has announced that its security forces have arrested prominent al-Qaeda leader Abu Majeed al-Obaidi in an armed clash southwest of Kirkuk [Al-Shorfa].

And in the latest violence in the country, at least 23 people were killed in a series of car bombings in and around Baghdad yesterday [Al Jazeera America].

Other developments

The New York Times (Azam Ahmed and Matthew Rosenberg) reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been engaged in “secret contacts” with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement, according to Western and Afghan officials, thus “further corroding already strained relations with the United States.”

CBS News (Rebecca Kaplan) reports that hundreds of soldiers are being investigated for fraud in relation to an Army National Guard recruiting program, under which National Guard soldiers were awarded a referral bonus if they convinced peers to sign up. The criminal investigation will be considered at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing later today.

In apparent retaliation for last week’s drone strike that killed a senior al-Shabaab official, members of the militant group have abducted 17 people, including four of its own members, from two Lower Shabelle towns, according to local residents [Sabahi’s Osman Mohamud]. The four member of al-Shabaab were reportedly accused of spying for Western governments.

A new report from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America outlines the challenges to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ disability compensation system, and provides recommendations so as to end the current backlog.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib covers how the slow prosecution of 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “shines a light on a troubled system.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it wants Iran to clarify past production of polonium, which has non-military uses but can also help trigger an atomic bomb explosion [Reuters’ Fredrik Dahl]. And the New York Times (Mark Landler) covers how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “finds itself in a very public standoff with the White House” over Iran sanctions legislation. However, following “stiff resistance” from President Obama, the group has stopped pressuring Senate Democrats to vote for the bill.

The Hill (Jeremy Herb) notes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is preparing the bill repealing military pension cuts, with a possible vote on the bill as early as next week, according to Senate aides.

A former Rwandan intelligence officer, Pascal Simbikangwa is to appear in a French court today in relation to charges of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity in the 1994 Rwandan genocide [AP’s Jamey Keaten].

The Pakistani government is due to begin preliminary talks with the Taliban’s representatives today, “in its most ambitious step yet to address Pakistan’s most potent domestic threat” [Washington Post’s Tim Craig]. Meanwhile, Pakistani politician Imran Khan, chosen by the Taliban to represent the group, has declined to participate [BBC].

The White House has announced that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March, during which he will discuss “Gulf and regional security, peace in the Middle East, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security.”

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich returned to work on Monday after four days of sick leave, warning opposition members to end their “extremism” and “radicalism” [Reuters’ Richard Balmforth and Natalia Zinets]. Meanwhile, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said that sanctions should be used as a threat against Ukraine’s government, striking a different tone from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who ruled out imminent sanctions last week [Agencies].

The U.S. has urged South Sudan’s leaders to implement the January 23 ceasefire between the rebels and government, as a team of regional monitors arrived in the country yesterday to observe the “shaky ceasefire” [Reuters].

According to a new report from IHS Jane’s, China is preparing to increase military funding and will spend more on defense than Britain, Germany and France combined by next year [New York Times’ Michael Forsythe].

Reuters reports that at least 70 people have been killed in violent clashes between Muslim and Christian communities in a town in the Central African Republic yesterday.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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