News Roundup and Notes: February 7, 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. 

Syria

The UN has welcomed reports that a “humanitarian pause” has been agreed with the Syrian authorities, which will allow civilians to evacuate from besieged areas of the city of Homs [BBC]. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki welcomed the agreement but said that an evacuation “is not a substitute for the safe, regular, and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has called on the Assad regime to speed up the chemical weapons move:

According to activists, a suicide bomber targeted a Syrian prison yesterday, allowing rebels to storm in and free hundreds of prisoners, in an offensive “aimed at capturing key government symbols” around Aleppo [AP].

A joint statement from the UN Special Rapporteurs warns that the acts being committed by both sides, including depriving people of their access to aid and health services, “amount to crimes against humanity” as well as “war crimes and serious violations of customary international humanitarian law which binds all parties.”

Russia and Ukraine 

An alleged telephone call between Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has been intercepted and leaked online [Kyiv Post’s Christopher J Miller]. Nuland can be heard dismissing efforts of EU officials on Ukraine’s crisis in blunt remarks. The call also reveals the “deep degree of U.S. involvement in affairs that Washington officially says are Ukraine’s to resolve” [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan].

White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested Russian involvement in the leaking [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet and Justin Sink]. Carney said, “The video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government. I think it says something about Russia’s role.” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that Nuland has apologized to her EU counterparts, while adding that this was a “new low” for Russia. Meanwhile, a Russian official has accused Washington of “crudely interfering” in Ukraine [New York Times’ Andrew Higgins and Peter Baker].

As the Sochi Winter Olympic games begin, U.S. and European intelligence officials believe militant attacks are highly likely, but are likely to be aimed at “softer” targets elsewhere in Russia [Reuters’ Mark Hosenball]. The Daily Beast (Jacob Siegel) notes that according to some security experts, militants may have already infiltrated the workforce and are now waiting to strike. And the Transportation Security Administration has placed a temporary ban on carry-on liquids on Russia-bound flights [Washington Post’s Josh Hicks].

Surveillance

DNI James Clapper said yesterday that the FISC has approved two limits on how the government can use telephony metadata. First, “absent a true emergency,” the metadata can only be queried following “a judicial finding that there is a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term is associated with an approved international terrorist organization.” Second, “query results must be limited to metadata within two hops of the selection term instead of three.”

The “Reform Government Surveillance” coalition–including Apple, Google and Facebook–has hired a Washington lobbyist, in a “big political move for an industry that initially had tried to avoid the debate over the [NSA]” [Politico’s Tony Romm].

Twitter’s head of global legal policy, Jeremy Kessel has said that the government’s restrictions on disclosing surveillance requests could “unfairly impact” user privacy and “our First Amendment right” [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]. Kessel added:

“[We] have pressed the U.S. Department of Justice to allow greater transparency, and proposed future disclosures concerning national security requests that would be more meaningful to Twitter’s users. We are also considering legal options we may have to seek to defend our First Amendment rights.”

Iran

The Treasury Department has announced actions against companies and individuals located around the world “for evading U.S. sanctions against Iran, aiding Iranian nuclear and missile proliferation, and supporting terrorism.” The actions “reflect the United States’ sustained commitment to continue enforcing our existing sanctions.” The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon) provides more details.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a statement against an immediate vote on Iran sanctions yesterday, only hours after 42 Republican senators demanded a vote [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

Pentagon 

As part of the 2015 budget request, the Pentagon plans to ask Congress for $4.5 billion in extra missile defense funding over the next five years, according to congressional sources and an expert [Reuters’ Andrea Shalal-Esa] Sources say this is a sign of Washington’s “growing concern about missile development efforts by North Korea and Iran.”

The Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) reports that the Pentagon has dropped its proposals for the early retirement of one of its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, “after the White House intervened to head off a brewing political fight.” The proposals “touched a nerve among a bipartisan group of lawmakers,” who called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to block the move.

The Hill (Jeremy Herb) reports on the renewed fight over sexual assaults in the military, with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill holding press conferences yesterday over whether such cases should be removed from the military command. A vote on the measures is scheduled for next week.

CNN (Barbara Starr) has learned that Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has privately disciplined one of his top generals, Brig. Gen. Martin P. Schweitzer, who has been investigated by the Army for sending an inappropriate e-mail about a female member of Congress.

Pakistan

The long-awaited preliminary meeting between the Pakistani Taliban and the government was “cordial and friendly,” according to a government negotiator [Al Jazeera]. In a statement following the meeting, both sides condemned the “recent acts of violence” and said that “such efforts should not sabotage the talks.”

The Economist argues that the “[e]fforts to get the Taliban to talk are unlikely to amount to much.” It notes that it remains unclear what the negotiations could cover, beyond prisoner releases.

The State Department has designated Malik Ishaq, one of the co-founders of Pakistan-based group Lashkar I Jhangvi, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

The Daily Beast (Eli Lake) notes that despite the White House’s decision to financially blacklist the terrorist organization, the Haqqani Network in 2012, “not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen” in the last seventeen months. Moreover, no money was seized from the Pakistani Taliban in 2012 either. According to Rep. Ted Poe, the sanctions are not being enforced for fear of upsetting negotiations between the U.S., Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Afghanistan

In an online video, the Taliban say they have captured a military dog from U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan following a battle late last year [AFP]. However, Western defense sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told AFP the dog belonged to British forces.

The Associated Press covers how a former warlord, who is believed to be a mentor to accused 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has “refashioned himself as … possibly the next president of Afghanistan.”

Other developments

U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s full ruling on the “mistake” that led to Rahinah Ibrahim being wrongly placed on the government’s no-fly list for seven years was released yesterday [Wired David Kravets]. The ruling reveals that an FBI official checked the wrong boxes on a form, in a case involving “conceded, proven, undeniable, and serious error by the government.”

The Associated Press (Monika Scislowska) reports that Polish prosecutors may seek access to Guantánamo detainees for direct questioning, as part of an investigation into whether a secret CIA prison operated in the country in 2002-2003.

The defense team lawyers for one of the 9/11 suspects has filed a motion requesting the military commission to order the commission’s prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins to cease making subjective “extrajudicial” observations defending the tribunals system, which, they argue, are undermining the right to a fair trial [New York Times’ Charlie Savage].

The Senate voted 96-0 yesterday to confirm Sen. Max Baucus as U.S. ambassador to China [The Hill’s Ramsey Cox].

Saudi officials have told Al-Shorfa (Saad Abdullah) that the government’s decision to offer cash rewards for leads on terrorist financing operations or money laundering is “an encouraging step” toward ending these practice.

North Korea has threatened to cancel reunions with family members in South Korea, accusing the South of allowing the U.S. to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers on a training mission over the Korean Peninsula [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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