News Roundup and Notes: February 19, 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

AT&T has disclosed that it received fewer than 1,000 requests under the FISA on national security grounds for detailed information from at least 35,000 customer accounts in the first six months of 2013 [Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Gryta].

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet French President François Hollande today to discuss plans to create telecommunications networks that keep individuals’ data inside EU borders [New York Times’ Mark Scott].

Taliban

White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed yesterday that there were no “active negotiations” with the Taliban, amid reports that the U.S. was negotiating a prisoner swap to secure the release of U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. However, Carney said that “if negotiations were to resume, we would certainly want to discuss the fate of [Bergdahl]” and noted that current U.S. efforts include “our military, or intelligence, and our diplomatic tools.” Pentagon spokesperson Col. Steve Warren also said that securing Bergdahl’s release would be a topic of negotiation should talks resume [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes].

On the other hand, Reuters (Missy Ryan et al.) reports that the White House resolved to renew negotiations, including the proposed prisoner swap, last December. To further progress, U.S. officials have also held meetings with the Qatari government, to ensure that Qatar remained willing to host the Taliban detainees, who are currently being held at Guantanamo.

Syria

Foreign Policy’s The Cable (Colum Lynch) reports that the UN “has been discretely cultivating informal contacts with [al-Qaeda’s] Syrian affiliate in hopes of persuading the militants to allow aid workers to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-controlled territory.” The contacts with Jabhat al-Nusra leaders are mostly informal and “sometimes involve little more than conversations … at a specific checkpoint,” while “more direct communications remain a closely-held secret.”

According to officials, the White House is taking a new look at options in Syria, but remains wary of direct U.S. involvement [Reuters’ Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton]. Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly argued for a more aggressive approach at numerous meetings, including arming opposition groups, but this suggestion has been “repeatedly knocked down within the White House.”

The White House has continued to defend its policies in Syria, with press secretary Jay Carney insisting yesterday that the administration is not undertaking a “new review of policy” as the assessment of options is “ongoing” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. Carney added that the administration “absolutely” believes that “negotiated political settlement,” and not military force, is “the only path forward for Syria.”

The Washington Post (Liz Sly) covers how the Free Syrian Army is “launching a new push to persuade the Obama administration to provide them with advanced weapons,” citing President Bashar al-Assad’s stance at the stalled peace talks as evidence that more military pressure is needed on the regime.

Charles Lister and William McCants provide a useful assessment of the interests and capabilities of the main players in the Syrian civil war [War on the Rocks]. And David Ignatius notes that a meeting in Washington last week between Western and Arab intelligence services that support the Syrian opposition “appears to signal a stronger effort to back the rebels” [Washington Post].

Iran

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon) reports that talks on a permanent nuclear deal opened yesterday with the U.S. pressing Iran on capping its expanding ballistic missile capabilities. The New York Times (Steven Erlanger) also covers the slow start to the talks, with “little substantive news” available at the end of the first day. Officials said that lead negotiators for Iran and the U.S., Abbas Araghchi and Wendy Sherman met separately for 80 minutes.

In a separate development, Foreign Policy’s The Complex (Shane Harris) covers how “Iran’s hackers are America’s newest cyber threat.” In the last two years, security experts and U.S. intelligence officials have been “alarmed by how quickly Iran has managed to develop its cyber warfare capabilities–and by how much it’s willing to use them.”

Ukraine

The Ukrainian Health Ministry has said that 25 people were killed in the protests in Kiev yesterday, including nine police officers, marking the country’s “bloodiest day” [Reuters’ Richard Balmforth and Marcin Goettig]. Violence continues as protesters regrouped at a central Kiev square this morning.

European Union foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine tomorrow:

Germany has said the EU will consider imposing sanctions against those responsible [EU Observer’s Andrew Rettman]. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had previously opposed the move, said:

“I stress: Those who are responsible in these hours for more bloodshed must know that the restraint Europe has shown regarding personal sanctions will surely be reconsidered.”

Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last evening, during which he expressed “grave concern regarding the crisis on the streets” and called on the President “to pull back government forces and to exercise maximum restraint.”

The Washington Post editorial notes that the latest violence shows the “need for negotiated settlement.” The editorial argues that if President Yanukovych “does not now … pull back his security forces, Western governments should be prepared to apply the sanctions they have been threatening.” And the Wall Street Journal (Gregory L. White et al.) covers how the clashes have raised stakes in a “renewed East-West contest,” as Ukraine’s fate is “vital for Putin’s drive to rebuild Russian regional influence.”

Other developments

Current and former officials have told ABC News (James Gordon Meek and Brian Ross) that the most likely candidates for the American citizen who is being considered as a U.S. drone target include al-Qaeda mouthpiece, Adam Yahiye Gadahn. An official also said that “the legalities of whether, how and who would be tasked with the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen posing a direct threat to other Americans have been resolved.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Jack Serle) notes that the CIA has not carried out a strike in Pakistan for 55 days, “the longest pause between drone strikes in Pakistan of Obama’s presidency yet recorded by the Bureau.”

Miami Herald (Carol Rosenberg) reports that the U.S. military is willing to allow family visits for some Guantanamo detainees, depending on whether the International Red Cross can find a Caribbean country to host the relatives between day trips to the Navy base.

A Tel Aviv district court has ruled that the country’s Likud party can discuss anything at its convention, “paving the way for Likud’s central body to debate [Secretary of State Kerry’s] peace plan and potentially block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from making controversial decisions regarding the plan” [Haaretz’s Jonathan Lis].

The New York Times (Mark Landler) covers how Robert Malley, who is returning to the White House as senior director at the National Security Council and will manage “the fraying ties between the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf,” has been “something of a lightning rod in a field that can be culturally and ideologically treacherous.”

A former U.S. soldier, Pfc. Steven Dale Green, who was convicted of raping and killing an Iraqi girl, as well as killing her family, has committed suicide in his cell at a federal maximum security prison [Los Angeles Times’ David Zucchino].

Politico (Philip Ewing) covers how the U.S. is facing a “no-win legacy” in Afghanistan, with “new depths of pessimism about the outlook for the nation that President George W. Bush and his team once vowed to transform.”

The Pentagon’s contract awards dropped 66 percent from December to $8.44 billion, “the lowest level in at least 22 months,” according to data compiled by Bloomberg (Jonathan D. Salant).

A twin suicide bombing in Lebanon’s Beirut this morning, targeting Iran’s cultural centre, has killed at least five people and wounded more than 100 [Al Jazeera]. The militant group, Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack and said, “We will continue… to target Iran and its party in Lebanon, in its security and political and military centres, until our demands are achieved.”

Fighting in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state has brought the country’s cease-fire agreement to an end, with both sides accusing the other of starting the violence [BBC]. The fighting is likely to fuel concerns over the security of oilfields in the north.

In the latest violence in Baghdad, a wave of car bombs killed at least 33 people and wounded dozens yesterday [AP].

Two Libyan militant groups demanded the country’s parliament to hand over power yesterday, but the attempted coup was dismissed by leaders, although troops remained on standby in case of unrest [Reuters’ Ghaith Shennib and Ulf Laessing].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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