News Roundup and Notes: February 13, 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

According to a memo obtained by NBC News (Michael Isikoff), a civilian NSA employee resigned after his security clearance was revoked for allowing Edward Snowden to use his personal log-in to access classified information. An active duty military member and a contractor have also been barred from access to NSA information and spaces, in connection with Snowden’s actions, and further accountability is being determined by their employers.

NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett said in a recent interview that President Obama’s surveillance reforms are “not putting us out of business” [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. While acknowledging that there is “a cost to implementing those procedures,” Ledgett stated that the cost “is reasonable, and the effects are not hurting our mission in a significant way.”

DNI James Clapper and AG Eric Holder announced yesterday the declassification of additional documents regarding collection under Section 501 of the FISA. The new documents include a motion and two orders underpinning the changes announced last week, which imposed two limits on how the government can use telephony metadata. First, “absent a true emergency,” the metadata can only be queried following a judicial order. Second, “query results must be limited to metadata within two hops of the selection term instead of three.”

A federal appeals court has questioned its authority to review a judge’s order giving defense lawyers access to the paperwork detailing the secret FISA orders that were used to build a criminal case [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]. The court has asked both sides to provide responses within a week to the jurisdictional question.

Reps. James Sensenbrenner, Darrell Issa and Jerrold Nadler have sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General James Cole regarding his testimony last week before the House Judiciary Committee. The letter argues:

“As applied to all United States citizens, [the NSA’s bulk collection] program likely violates our Fourth Amendment right to privacy and chills our First Amendment right to free association.  As applied to Members of Congress, it also raises grave Separation of Powers concerns for the executive branch to interfere with the private communications of the legislative branch without congressional knowledge.”

Sen. Rand Paul filed his class-action lawsuit yesterday against the Obama administration over the NSA’s bulk data collection program [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton]. Paul, along with Matt Kibbe and Ken Cuccinelli, makes a case for this “important step” of “restoring our Constitution and reining in our own overreaching federal government” [CNN].

James Dempsey, member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that the NSA’s surveillance program has no basis in statute [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

The EU parliament has dropped demands that Snowden be granted asylum by EU governments, as members of parliament failed to reach consensus on the amendment calling for Snowden’s security [The Guardian’s Ian Traynor].

The Washington Post (Craig Timberg) covers the “burgeoning industry” of commercial spyware, which “is making surveillance capabilities that once were the exclusive province of the most elite spy agencies, such as [NSA], available to governments worldwide.” According to the report, authoritarian governments are using spyware to target political activists and journalists, including those residing in the U.S.

Drones

The Los Angeles Times (Ken Dilanian) covers Sen. Carl Levin’s failed efforts to broaden congressional oversight of the CIA drones program, after the administration refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on the drones operations, according to senior U.S. officials. The White House did not allow CIA officials to attend a joint classified hearing of the Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. According to a congressional aide, “If you open this thing up to the House Armed Services Committee, that means a third of Congress will have been read in to the CIA drone program.”

The Associated Press reports that tight export restrictions in the U.S. are giving an advantage to foreign drone makers, including those in Israel and China, over U.S. manufacturers.

Syria

Due to the “scant progress” being made at the peace negotiations, UN chief negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi has brought forward his meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and United States Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman “in a bid to speed up the talks” [UN News Centre]. The meeting is now scheduled to take place later today.

The New York Times (Anne Barnard and Nick Cumming-Bruce) reports that the Syrian opposition presented “its most detailed vision yet” of a political transition to the government’s delegation yesterday. Notably, the plan makes no mention of President Bashar al-Assad or his ouster, but focuses on the requirements for human rights and justice.

Russia has tabled an alternative resolution at the UN Security Council on humanitarian aid in Syria, but diplomats have not provided details on how Russia’s text differs from the previous resolution on aid, which Russia was proposing to veto [The Guardian].

On the ground, humanitarian aid was transported into Homs yesterday, while a further number of civilians were evacuated from the city [UN News Centre]. However, violence continues, as regime warplanes attacked a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border [Al Jazeera]. According to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 4,959 people have been killed in Syria since the peace talks began on January 22.

The Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher) notes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has personally stepped in” to assist the humanitarian mission, under pressure from Iranian and Russian allies to co-operate with the UN-mediated talks and mission.

The New York Times (Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt) covers how “[a] series of daring but little noticed breakouts from Iraqi prisons has freed hundreds of hardened militants who are now among the leaders and foot soldiers” of radical groups operating in Syria and Iraq.

In the UK, the police are reportedly investigating whether a British individual was responsible for a suicide attack in Aleppo last week, which freed hundreds of prisoners [AP].

And the Washington Post editorial welcomes President Obama’s “new tone” on Syria, particularly his acknowledgement during his recent press conference “that his diplomatic strategy is ‘far from achieving’ its aim of a political solution, while ‘we still have a horrendous situation on the ground.’”

Afghanistan

Two U.S.-led coalition soldiers were killed in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, in an attack by two individuals wearing Afghan security forces uniforms [New York Times’ Azam Ahmed].

As covered in yesterday’s Roundup, Afghanistan released 65 detainees from a former U.S. prison earlier today, despite U.S. objections [AP]. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has stated that the release of the individuals “who are responsible for, or contributed to, the deaths of Afghan security force personnel, Afghan civilians, and American and other coalition personnel” is “deeply regrettable.”

Iran

A letter from 100 Democrats and four Republicans to President Obama supports his position on Iran sanctions, noting that “Congress must give diplomacy a chance” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet].

The Wall Street Journal (Ian Talley) reports that “Iran’s economy is getting a boost from the reprieve in international sanctions,” based on a new IMF assessment.

Other developments

Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin covers why the Taliban released a video showing that “America’s only P.O.W.” is alive. According to U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials, “the U.S. government requested this proof of life as a precondition to resuming direct U.S.-Taliban talks over a prisoner swap: Bergdahl in exchange for Taliban commanders currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.”

NPR (Liz Halloran) reports on the “simmering policy dispute between two Democratic senators, [Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill]” over the role of military commanders in decisions to prosecute sexual assault cases.

The Senate voted 95-3 yesterday to restore military pension benefits, which is expected to cost about $6 billion [Washington Post’s Wesley Lowrey].

Al Jazeera America reports that U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, visiting Okinawa “in hopes of winning support for a U.S. military base relocation plan,” has promised that Washington will do its best to reduce the burden of its heavy troop presence on the island.

A bipartisan group of 62 lawmakers have written to President Obama asking him to release the fiscal 2015 spending levels for the 16 federal intelligence agencies [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

Secretary of State John Kerry is travelling from today until February 18 to Seoul, Beijing, Jakarta, and Abu Dhabi to “address a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues” with senior government officials. According to U.S. officials, Kerry will press China to take steps toward lowering tensions with its Asian neighbors and to clarify its territorial claims [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous]. A senior State Department official has also said that Kerry will seek China’s help to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon].

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee) reports that Obama “has lined up a chain of summits” with Middle East leaders over the next six weeks to narrow divisions over the Iran nuclear deal and a Israel-Palestine peace treaty.

The White House has announced that Obama will travel to Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April “as part of his ongoing commitment to increase U.S. diplomatic, economic and security engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.” The Wall Street Journal (Josh Chin et al.) reports on the “host of security tensions” the President is likely to encounter.

Egyptian police have detained a local employee of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, “in a move that could complicate already tense relations between the two allies” [Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham]. And during today’s meeting with Egypt’s Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Sisi’s presidential bid [AP]. Sisi’s visit comes amid reports of a $2 billion arms deal with Russia, “which is part of Egypt’s shift to reduce reliance on the United States.”

A suicide car bomb targeted a Pakistani police bus this morning near Karachi, killing at least 12 officers [Al Jazeera].

A Ukrainian judge who sentenced several anti-government protesters to house arrest died of gunshot wounds yesterday, with each side blaming the other for his murder [Wall Street Journal’s Alan Cullison and Katya Gorchinskaya].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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