News Roundup and Notes: February 5, 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

The House Judiciary Committee examined recommendations for reforms to the NSA’s spying activities yesterday [Reuters’ Doina Chiacu]. Rep. James Sensenbrenner told Deputy Attorney General James Cole that the “clock … is ticking” on this issue. The National Journal (Dustin Volz) reports that during the hearing, Cole said the NSA “probably” collects phone records of Congress members and their staff. He added, “we’re not allowed to look at any of those, however, unless we have reasonable, articulable suspicion that those numbers are related to a known terrorist threat.”

The Hill (Julian Hattem) also covers the hearing, during which members warned that section 215 of the Patriot Act, set to expire next year, will be dissolved unless the administration reforms the NSA’s powers. [And check out Just Security’s David Cole’s post from yesterday summarizing his testimony before the Committee.]

House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers accused journalist Glenn Greenwald of illegally selling stolen material by asking news organizations to pay for access to the leaked NSA documents [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]. Rogers told reporters, “For personal gain, he’s now selling his access to information, that’s how they’re terming it … A thief selling stolen material is a thief.”

And at the House Intelligence Committee hearing, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn told lawmakers that “there is the possibility” that Snowden is under Russia’s influence [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

The Nation’s Nicolas Niarchos explores whether NSA surveillance violated attorney-client privilege, noting that a document leaked by Snowden, along with interviews with lawyers representing terrorism suspects, “reveal a disturbing loophole in this once-sacred legal principle.”

In an interview with Today’s Savannah Guthrie, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about NSA surveillance, stating, “I think that the government made a lot of mistakes in terms of not being clear about what they were using information for … And I think that’s the line that was missed here.”

German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has reported that the NSA monitored former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as early as 2002, according to secret documents and U.S. government and intelligence sources [New York Times’ Alison Smale]. Schröder was openly opposed to the Bush administration’s plans for military action in Iraq.

Pakistan

The Washington Post (Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller) reports that the Obama administration has “sharply curtailed” drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the Pakistani government for restraint while it pursues peace talks with the Taliban, according to U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, the scheduled peace talks have stalled already, as the government’s team failed to appear yesterday, attracting criticisms from the Pakistani Taliban’s representatives  [New York Times’ Salman Masood]. No new date has been proposed as yet.

The Economist notes that “[t]alk of Pakistani military action against the Taliban should be welcomed, even if it is actually designed to press them to talk.” And in the latest violence, a suicide bomb went off in the city of Peshawar yesterday, killing at least nine people [Wall Street Journal’s Safdar Dawar and Syed Shoaib Hasan].

Drones

Rep. Adam Schiff proposed at a House Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday that the Obama administration should publish an annual report on U.S. drone strikes, documenting how many combatants and non-combatants are killed by strikes each year [New York Times’ David Firestone].

Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers complained that the administration’s new rules on reigning in drone strikes was undermining U.S. counter-terrorism efforts [Daily Beast’s Eli Lake]. Rogers said, “It’s very clear that there have been missed opportunities that I believe increased the risk of the lives of our soldiers and for disrupting operations under way.”

And former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has called for limits on drone strikes against U.S. citizens overseas, arguing that Americans should not be targeted without prior approval by a military panel or a federal judge [Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin]. 

Syria

DNI James Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee yesterday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “strengthened” in power over the past year, and had benefited from the chemical weapons deal [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Mark Mazzetti]. Clapper also added, “We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad.”

The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian) reports that according to U.S. intelligence officials, more than 50 U.S. citizens have joined extremist groups in Syria, and some have returned to America and are under FBI surveillance.

The World Tribune notes that al-Qaeda’s statement disavowing Syrian extremist group ISIL was released “amid a growing assessment within the Sunni opposition in Syria as well as Arab intelligence agencies that ISIL was working with the [Assad] regime.”

A draft UN Security Council resolution is aiming to compel the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas, accorded to a Western diplomat at the UN [Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher and Joe Lauria]. However, the top U.N. official in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo has argued that the effort may backfire.

Secretary of State John Kerry has issued a statement condemning the barrel bombs in Aleppo as “the latest barbaric act” of the regime, noting that the violence undermines hopes for the success of the Geneva II process.

A UN report on children in the Syrian armed conflict details the “unspeakable suffering” to which children have been subjected, “with the Government and allied militia responsible for countless killings, maiming and torture, and the opposition for recruiting youngsters for combat and using terror tactics in civilian areas” [UN News Centre].

Iran

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) covers the Obama administration’s efforts to defend the interim nuclear deal with Iran before skeptical members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. The administration’s top negotiator, Wendy Sherman said that the U.S. has told foreign leaders that trade delegations to Iran are not helpful to the ongoing negotiations. Under Secretary For Terrorism And Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen also testified before the Committee, outlining the administration’s steps “to deliver the limited, temporary and reversible relief” under the interim deal.

The Washington Post (Jason Rezaian) reports how domestic criticism from lawmakers in Iran, much like the “tough line” taken by some Republicans in the U.S., threatens to undermine the diplomatic negotiations.

Egypt

The Washington Post editorial board argues that the arrests and prosecutions of journalists in Egypt “add to a growing pile of evidence contravening the Obama administration’s contention that the new regime is carrying out a transition to democracy.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has confirmed that the U.S. has “strongly urged” Egypt’s government “to drop these charges and release those journalists and academics who have been detained” [Politico’s Hadas Gold].

Reuters details how U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had been expected to become Ambassador to Egypt, according to several sources, but was rejected by Egyptian government officials because they regarded him as too close to Islamist parties in the Middle East. Ford is expected to step down from his current role at the end of the month.

Other developments

Bloomberg (Tony Capaccio) reports that the White House is expected to announce later today that President Obama will nominate Robert Work as the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian leader, according to U.S. officials.

Lawyers for Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law have asked District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan to allow them to interview accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, prior to the terrorism trial scheduled to begin this month [AP’s Larry Neumeister].

The Navy has suspended around 30 nuclear reactor instructors at a training center amid cheating allegations, in a scandal that is unconnected to the one plaguing the Air Force’s nuclear missile units [Politico’s Philip Ewing].

Libya’s Foreign Ministry has announced that the country “has become totally free of usable chemical weapons” [CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh]. The destruction of the country’s chemical weapons was a joint effort involving the U.S., Germany and Canada.

National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told lawmakers that there are “a number of specific threats” aimed at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and that the U.S. and Russia are tracking threats of “varying degrees” of credibility [AP]. Meanwhile, President Obama met with national security officials yesterday, during which he was briefed on the Russian security environment, and was assured that his team is “taking all appropriate steps regarding the safety of Americans” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. In a separate development, U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who was the architect behind the administration’s “reset” policy with Rusisia, has announced that he will be stepping down from his post shortly after the Winter Olympics [Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert].

The Wall Street Journal (Alan Cullison) notes that prospects for ending Ukraine’s political crisis “looked dim,” as the President and opposition failed to agree on a political overhaul ahead of meetings with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court are expected to plead for more time to gather evidence at a hearing today in Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trial, possibly deciding the ultimate fate of the “politically fraught trial” [Reuters].

A series of bomb attacks in central Baghdad this morning targeted the city’s heavily fortified green zone where key government offices are located, killing at least 22 people [AP].

Colombia’s government fired two top military intelligence officers, and has launched an investigation, amid allegations that the army illegally spied on the FARC peace talks [Wall Street Journal’s Darcy Crowe and Dan Molinski].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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