News Roundup and Notes: February 26, 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 Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman and Devlin Barrett) reports that the White House is considering “four options for restructuring the National Security Agency’s phone-surveillance program, from ditching the controversial collection altogether to running it through the telephone companies.” According to officials familiar with the discussions, the other options include transferring the data to a different government agency, such as the FBI, or to an entity outside the phone companies and the government.

Cybersecurity firm RSA’s executive chairman, Art Coviello has suggested the government was not upfront about what it would do with his firm’s products [Wall Street Journal’s Danny Yadron]. Coviello said that if the NSA “exploits a tradition of trust within the security community, that’s a problem … If that is an issue, we can’t work with the NSA.”

The NSA’s inspector general, George Ellard said yesterday, in his first public comments, that Edward Snowden “could have come to me” [Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn]. Ellard added, “Perhaps it’s the case that we could have … explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do.”

Afghanistan

The Washington Post (Adam Goldman) reports that the U.S. “has quietly begun to whittle down the population of detainees it holds at a military prison in Afghanistan,” but officials say the administration is struggling over the fate of non-Afghan nationals who are regarded as particularly dangerous. One option being considered by the administration is to transfer some detainees to the U.S. for a military commission trial, but this “could run into political opposition or may be stymied by a lack of court-ready evidence.”

President Obama told Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone yesterday that because Karzai “has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the [Bilateral Security Agreement], the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning.” In particular:

“Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan.”

While leaving open the possibility of concluding the BSA later this year, Obama noted that “the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a statement expressing “strong support” for this “prudent step.”

The New York Times (Mark Landler and Helene Cooper), Wall Street Journal (Adam Entous et al.) and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung) provide more details.

Pakistan

The Pakistani government is “on the verge of launching a major military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region,” following failed peace talks with the Taliban and “brutal Taliban attacks” in recent weeks, reports the Washington Post (Karen DeYoung). A senior Pakistani official said the attack “could be any day,” and added that the plans have been shared with top U.S. officials.

Syria

Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra has issued a five-day ultimatum to rival group, ISIL to accept mediation to end rebel infighting or be “expelled” from the region [Al Jazeera]. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani issued a statement warning ISIL, “if you reject God’s judgment again, … then [we] will be forced to launch an assault against this aggressive, ignorant ideology and will expel it, even from Iraq.”

Ukraine

Ukraine’s acting interior minister has announced that the country’s elite Berkut police unit, blamed for the deaths of protesters last week, has been disbanded [BBC]. And Ukraine’s parliament voted yesterday in favor of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych being tried before the ICC.

The New York Times (Steven Erlanger and David M. Herszenhorn) reports on EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton’s visit to Kiev, and the Wall Street Journal (Ian Talley) covers efforts of U.S., European and IMF officials to assemble an international financing package for Ukraine.

Other developments

At a closed hearing at the Guantánamo military commission yesterday, defense lawyers for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri continued their arguments that the use of secret evidence should prevent the jury from being able to hand down a death penalty [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

The Hill (Kristina Wong and Erik Wasson) covers how the administration’s new defense budget is “getting a rough reception on Capitol Hill, drawing strong opposition from GOP defense hawks and tepid support from Democrats.” Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board welcomes the proposals in the 2015 budget as reflecting “a necessary and more prudent realism as America ends 13 years at war.”

Politico (Burgess Everett) reports that Senate Republicans are demanding a vote on fresh Iran sanctions as part of the veterans’ benefits bill authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Anbar Provincial Council in Iraq has asked the government for an extension to the three-day truce in Fallujah that had been scheduled to end yesterday, noting, “we have made more progress over the past three days than we did at any time before” [Asharq Al-Awsat’s Hamza Mustafa]. Fallujah remains under the control of insurgents.

Egypt’s interim president has appointed the outgoing housing minister, Ibrahim Mehlib–“a construction magnate from the era of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak”–as his new interim prime minister [Al Jazeera America]. Mehlib’s appointment “appeared orchestrated to quell labor turmoil that threatens to trigger wider unrest.”

The U.S. has expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in response to similar action in Caracas against three U.S. consular officials last week [AP’s Luis Alonso Lugo].

French lawmakers voted yesterday to extend the country’s military presence in the Central African Republic, with the situation in the former French colony “showing little sign of improvement” [France 24].

In the latest act of violence, Islamic militant group Boko Haram attacked a school dormitory in northern Nigeria yesterday, killing at least 58 male students [AP].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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