News Roundup and Notes: March 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

The Washington Post (Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani) reports that the NSA “has built a surveillance system capable of recording ‘100 percent’ of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place.” The program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009, while its RETRO tool, “short for ‘retrospective retrieval,’ … reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011,” according to those with knowledge of the program and documents provided by Edward Snowden.

The Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for intelligence and special program assessments has admitted he was “not aware” of the NSA’s bulk collection programs before they were exposed last summer, and that his office does not have any investigations open into the NSA’s surveillance activities [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman].

A 2007 court filing made public this week shows government lawyers acknowledging that the government swept up large volumes of data from emails in the U.S. for several years without any court approval, on the orders of former President George W. Bush as part of counter-terrorism efforts, reports Politico (Josh Gerstein).

Ukraine

Senior Ukrainian officials plan to travel to Crimea “to avert an escalation in hostilities,” after Crimea’s self-defense forces took possession of the Ukrainian navy headquarters in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol this morning [AP]. Reuters (Aleksandar Vasovic and Gabriela Baczynska) and the Kyiv Post (Oksana Grytsenko) have more updates on developments in Ukraine, which come a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to incorporate Crimea into Russia.

White House press secretary Jay Carney responded to Russia’s latest actions yesterday, stating the U.S. “would not recognize this attempted annexation” and warning “there are costs with such action” [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. President Obama has discussed next steps with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And the White House also announced that the G-7 leaders will meet next week to “focus on the situation in Ukraine” [Reuters].

Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Poland and Lithuania yesterday “to reassure [U.S.] allies who are deeply concerned about Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and what the broader implications of those actions might be.” Speaking with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Biden criticized the “almost unbelievable set of events” in Ukraine.

Politico (Seung Min Kim and Burgess Everett) notes that “there’s no sign that Congress will resolve its differences [on the Ukraine bill] anytime soon—despite growing alarm about developments in Ukraine.”

The Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee) reports that according to U.S., European and Russian officials, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov excused himself during negotiations with U.S. officials to phone Putin last week. Reportedly, Lavrov said that Putin had refused to take his call, underscoring “the Obama administration’s inability to penetrate the Kremlin and its struggles to comprehend Mr. Putin’s calculations.”

The New York Times (Peter Baker) considers that if not a renewed Cold War, Putin’s decision “seems likely to involve a sustained period of confrontation and alienation that will be hard to overcome.” The New York Times (Steven Erlanger) and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung) cover how Russia’s move has led to a rethinking of NATO’s role in the region. And the Wall Street Journal (Stacy Meichtry and Nicholas Winning) reports on the emerging divisions in Europe over how to respond to Putin.

The New York Times editorial board writes that while the West should be “more aware of the complexities and passions that are still present in the former Soviet expanse,” Putin “should be made to understand that his authoritarian rule and imperial illusions are the problem, and not some perceived slights from the West.” In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. calls for greater action against Moscow, such as blocking Russia’s energy exports and freezing its overseas holdings. And in the Washington Post, David Ignatius covers how “Russia’s move into Crimea was a study in the speedy deployment of special operations forces to achieve a limited objective.”

Syria

Israel’s military has carried out artillery strikes against Syrian military targets in the Golan Heights, in response to an attack on its troops yesterday, which left four Israeli soldiers wounded [Haaretz]. According to a statement of the Israel Defense Forces, the Syrian military “enabled and aided in the carrying out of [Tuesday’s] terror attacks.”

The State Department announced it has notified the Syrian government that “it must immediately suspend operations” at its embassy and its consulates in Michigan and Texas. The decision takes into consideration “the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against the Syrian people.”

A panel of investigators has reported to the UN Human Rights Council, outlining a list of individuals—from all sides—believed to be responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria [UN News Centre].

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher), Syrian deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad said peace talks could not continue if the opposition and the West insisted that President Bashar al-Assad handover power, and indicated that Moscow agreed. Mekdad said, “The issue of [Assad] relinquishing power is now behind us and this is a flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”

Al Jazeera covers the clashes in Lebanon between the army and demonstrators, who are protesting a siege on a border town, “as the country struggles to keep a lid on sectarian tensions enflamed by the war in neighboring Syria.”

Iran

In an op-ed in the Financial Times, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif writes that the “option of a nuclear weapon would harm our security, putting at risk our relative advantage in conventional forces” and notes that Iran also opposes nuclear weapons “on principle.” Zarif says the IAEA has recently confirmed “we have kept all the promises we have made” and that “[i]t is now time for our counterparts to keep their side of the bargain.”

The New York Times (Alissa J. Rubin and Rick Gladstone) and Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman) provide details of the first day of talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries. Those familiar with discussions said the focus was on sanctions relief, the future of Iran’s Arak reactor, and enrichment work.

Other developments

Al Jazeera has learned from sources that the still-classified Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation program alleges that “at least one high-value detainee was subjected to torture techniques that went beyond those authorized by George W. Bush’s Justice Department.” The report also suggests that the CIA misled the White House, Congress and Justice Department on the intelligence value of detainee Abu Zubaydah when making a case for harsher interrogations techniques.

The federal judge in the terrorism trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, has ruled that the testimony of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not admissible [Wall Street Journal’s Charles Levinson].

A Pentagon review has found that last September’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard could have been prevented [New York Times’ Helene Cooper]. The Pentagon’s review was released yesterday, along with an independent review, which found that “far too many people have security clearances” in the DoD. The Washington Post editorial covers the Pentagon review, welcoming the suggestion “for the military to rethink outdated security theories that focus only on external threats and strong perimeters and to recognize the potential for terrorism and mayhem from within.”

The Washington Post editorial notes how Secretary of State John Kerry “has been a cheerleader for Egypt’s new military regime, repeatedly expressing optimism that it is leading the country back to democracy despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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