News Roundup and Notes: February 28, 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 Guardian (Spencer Ackerman and James Ball) reported yesterday that the NSA helped its British counterpart GCHQ intercept and store webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing. According to GCHQ files provided by Edward Snowden, a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected and saved still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk, including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications. The program, which was launched in 2008, was still active in 2012. Yahoo reacted strongly, accusing the surveillance agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”

Sens. Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich responded to the report, stating, “If this report is accurate it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.” And The Hill (Kate Tummarello) covers reactions of the tech industry to the latest revelations.

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) notes that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander offered an “unexpected option” to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday for restructuring the NSA’s phone data collection program: “narrow it to obtain only terrorism-related data.” Alexander, who also serves as the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, also told the Committee that the U.S. “needs an agency like NSA with its technical capabilities” in order to counter cyber threats [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

Drones

The New York Times (Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt) reports on Abdullah al-Shami, who “is at the center of a debate inside the government over whether President Obama should once again take the extraordinary step of authorizing the killing of an American citizen overseas.”

The Pakistani Movement for Justice political party announced yesterday it was ending its blockade of NATO supply routes through the northern part of the country, which was set up in protest over U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan [Washington Post’s Tim Craig].

Terrorism cases

Lawyers for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who is facing a terrorism trial next week, have asked a federal judge to dismiss or postpone the proceedings, arguing that newly obtained evidence suggests the government had charged the wrong man [Los Angeles Times’ Richard Serrano]. According to the defense team, Ghaith’s identity was mixed up with Abdul Rahman Abdul Abu Ghityh Sulayman, a “high-risk” detainee currently held at Guantánamo.

Reuters (Nate Raymond) reports that Abu Hamza al-Masri plans to testify in his own defense at his trial on terrorism charges in April, according to a letter to the judge overseeing his case.

Afghanistan

NATO and U.S. military are prepared to wait until Afghan President Hamid Karzai exits office later this year before deciding on a troop presence, according to a planning process described by officials, reports the Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes and Stephen Fidler).

The Washington Post (Karen DeYoung) also covers developments at the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, during which Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed commitment to a post-2014 training mission in Afghanistan, but said they had to plan for alternatives in case no bilateral agreement is reached.

Adm. Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told lawmakers that “if … there is no special operations component left in Afghanistan, it will certainly make it more difficult to be able to deal with … the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda in the area” [AFP]. McRaven added that the threat from al-Qaeda is “much more broad” today as affiliate groups are surging in Yemen, North Africa, Iraq and Syria.

In a separate development, Pentagon officials defended the 2011 Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan yesterday, during which 30 troops were killed in the downing of a helicopter [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb]. The officials testifying at a House Oversight subcommittee maintained that the Taliban had no advance warning of the mission.

Syria

Defense Department spokesperson Army Col. Steven Warren said yesterday that the transportation of chemical weapons out of Syria was too slow, and that the U.S. is urging the Syrian regime to accelerate the process. Warren added, “These are international obligations, and I know they’ve submitted a plan for a 100-day long extension, and we find that unacceptable.”

According to a report of the OPCW-UN joint mission, Syrian authorities reported that there were two attempted attacks on Syrian convoys transporting chemical weapons late last month [Reuters’ Michelle Nichols And Louis Charbonneau].

Ukraine

The Guardian (Haroon Siddique) has live updates on the latest developments in Ukraine this morning. A large group of masked armed men have seized the international airport in Crimea’s capital, while Ukraine’s parliament accused Russia of carrying out an “armed invasion” on its territory.

The Daily Beast (Eli Lake) reports that according to the assessment of U.S. intelligence, “Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine” despite the new Russian military exercise being carried out near Ukraine’s border. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters yesterday that he had been assured by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia respected Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO’s Secretary General also called on Russia to avoid an escalation of the situation yesterday, with Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calling on all parties to “cool down” [Stars and Stripes’ John Vandiver]. And Vice President Joe Biden called Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk to offer the U.S.’s “full support” for the formation of a new Ukranian government [The Hill’s Justin Sink].

Other developments

The State Department has published its annual country reports, assessing human rights practices abroad.

Senate Republicans “derailed” the veterans’ benefits bill last evening, “in another chapter of the ongoing feud over amendments, spending and new sanctions on Iran,” reports Politico (Juana Summers). Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked consideration of amendments on Wednesday, Democrats came up four votes short of the required 60.

House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers told Fox News (Catherine Herridge) that it is likely former CIA acting director Mike Morell will be recalled to testify on Benghazi.

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon) notes that the start of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference on Sunday “provides a high-profile forum for debate over two of President Barack Obama’s key foreign policy initiatives: the Mideast peace process and negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program.”

The Economist comments on the recent UN Security Council resolution on Yemen, with many opponents of the former president expressing concern that sanctions “would likely have little effect, and risk encouraging those with the means and motivations to undermine the country’s fragile transition.”

North Korea launched four missiles into the sea off its eastern coast yesterday, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry [CNN’s Judy Kwon and Halimah Abdullah].

A new report from Amnesty International documents the use of excessive force by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank since 2011, “with virtual impunity due to the authorities’ failure to conduct thorough investigations.”

A car bomb blast in Somalia’s Mogadishu yesterday targeted a tea shop “where intelligence officers are known to congregate” and killed at least 10 people [AP].

Al Jazeera America covers the latest violence in Iraq, where a series of bombings around Baghdad have killed at least 31 people.

The EU is prepared to send a mission of up to 1,000 people to the Central African Republic by the end of April, although it had previously estimated a mission size of around 500 people [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman].

In an attack believed to be carried out by militant group Boko Haram, at least 32 people have been killed in three separate strikes in northeast Nigeria [Al Jazeera America].

If you want to receive your news directly to your inbox, sign up here for the Just Security Early Edition. For the latest information from Just Security, follow us on Twitter (@just_security) and join the conversation on Facebook. To submit news articles and notes for inclusion in our daily post, please email us at news@justsecurity.org. Don’t forget to visit The Pipeline for a preview of upcoming events and blog posts on U.S. national security. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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