News Roundup and Notes: February 18, 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

In an interview with The Daily Beast (Eli Lake), DNI James Clapper said the problems facing the intelligence community over surveillance could have been avoided. Clapper said:

“Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11—which is the genesis of the 215 program—and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap, … so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards … We wouldn’t have had the problem we had.”

First Look Media’s The Intercept (Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher) reports that the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ “targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.” According to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the NSA’s campaign targeted Julian Assange, as well as “what the U.S. government calls ‘the human network that supports WikiLeaks.’” The documents also reveal that GCHQ used its surveillance capabilities to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site.

Politico (Josh Gerstein) covers the challenge facing the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which has been tasked to assess the effectiveness of the NSA’s 702 program. The NSA program is aimed at more than counter-terrorism, including developing intelligence on nuclear proliferation, cybercrime and foreign government intentions, while the PCLOB is limited by statute to assessing the privacy implications and effectiveness of terrorism programs.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa responded yesterday to the New York Times report that the Australian Signals Directorate had monitored an American law firm, while it was representing the Indonesian government on various trade issues [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon]. Natalegawa said, “To suggest as if the future of shrimps exported by Indonesia to the United States had an impact on Australia’s security is a little bit too much.”

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes) reports that the Iranian infiltration of a Navy computer network–which it first reported last September–was far more extensive than previously believed, and took the Navy about four months “to finally purge the hackers from its biggest unclassified computer network,” according to officials. According to congressional aides, the Iranian hacking episode is likely to test Obama’s nominee for NSA Director, Vice Adm. Michael Rogers at his confirmation hearing.

And the Associated Press covers how the debate over NSA surveillance “is highlighting divisions within the Democratic and Republican parties that could transform the politics of national security.”

Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry has stepped up criticism of the Syrian regime, and of the Russian and Iranian role in the crisis, stating:

“Bashar al-Assad has not engaged in the discussions along the promised and required standard … They have refused to open up one moment of discussion legitimately about a transition government, and it is very clear that Bashar al-Assad is continuing to try to win this in the battlefield …

And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah, and from Russia. Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.”

The New York Times (Michael R. Gordon et al.) and Washington Post (Simon Denyer) provide more details.

Amid growing frustration over stalled diplomatic talks, the Obama administration plans to reconsider options ranging from expanding efforts to train and equip moderate rebels to setting up no-fly zones, according to officials briefed on the deliberations [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes].

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby also said that there is “an interest in coming up with other options moving forward in Syria,” but stressed that the options would be “interagency,” and not just involving the Pentagon [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

The Wall Street Journal (Maria Abi-Habib) notes that the “sudden replacement” of the Commander of the Free Syrian Army “is the strongest sign yet that the rebel group is restructuring to address concerns of its Western backers that it fight both the regime and extremist opposition factions.”

Meanwhile, violence continues on the ground, and regime forces have recaptured a village in central Hama province [Al Jazeera].

Iran

The first round of talks on a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers begins in Vienna this morning [AFP].  The New York Times (Steven Erlanger) and Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon and Laurence Norman) cover the skepticism and caution, with both sides playing down expectations ahead of the talks. Expressing mistrust last evening, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that “the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere.”

The U.S.’s lead negotiator Wendy Sherman told CNN’s “The Situation Room” (Wolf Blitzer) that “[so] far everyone, both Iran and all of the rest of us who provided some very limited, targeted sanctions relief have kept their commitments” [CNN’s Jamie Crawford]. Sherman said that the Vienna talks “will build on that first step, because we don’t want it to be the only step.”

According to former diplomats and analysts, the parties may struggle to meet the self-imposed July deadline, although an extension would “be warranted” if “real progress is being made” [Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone].

In a separate development, Iran said it would send forces into Pakistan to free five guards kidnapped by militants, “[if] Pakistan doesn’t take the needed steps to fight against the terrorist groups” [Reuters].

Taliban

The Washington Post (Anne Gearan and Ernesto Londoño) reports on the administration’s decision to resume talks with the Taliban in an effort to secure the release of American captive Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five members of the Afghan Taliban currently held at Guantanamo, according to current and former officials.

Peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban broke down yesterday after the group said they executed 23 soldiers in revenge for army operations in the tribal regions on the Afghan border [Al Jazeera America].

Other developments

Army judge James L. Pohl recessed the first military commission session of the year yesterday because the alleged architect of the 2000 USS Cole bombing indicated he has lost confidence in his lawyer and wants to dismiss him [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

The Pentagon is decreasing the number of F-35 fighter jets that it planned to buy in 2015, reports Bloomberg News. And the Associated Press reports that the Navy’s futuristic weapons include “lasers designed to shoot down aerial drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds.”

Venezuelan security forces expelled three U.S. diplomats on charges of conspiring with the opposition demonstrators [Reuters’ Diego Ore and Brian Ellsworth]. However, the State Department issued a statement yesterday noting that the U.S. “has not received any formal notification” of the expulsion, and that the “allegations that the [U.S.] is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed concerns “over a pattern of behavior in which maritime claims are being asserted in the East China and South China seas,” and stressed that it is “imperative for all claimants” to base their claims on international law [Washington Post’s Simon Denyer].

Armed group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s tourist bus bombing in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which killed four people, and has threatened more strikes against “softer” economic targets [Al Jazeera].

Russia announced yesterday that it is resuming financial assistance to Ukraine, just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was holding a meeting with Ukrainian opposition leaders [Wall Street Journal’s Alan Cullison and James Marson]. And in a “fresh eruption of violence” this morning, protestors clashed with police in Kiev as they tried to march to parliament [BBC].

A UN panel has published its final report on human rights abuses in North Korea, detailing the “unspeakable atrocities” and “crimes against humanity” in the country, which “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Four bombs exploded last night in Baghdad, killing 25 people and wounding dozens, according to police reports [New York Times’ Duraid Adnan].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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