News Roundup and Notes: March 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

President Obama has endorsed the plan that intelligence officials and the Justice Department have proposed for the reform of the NSA’s phone call records program. Obama said:

“I’m confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people have raised.”

Key Senate Democrats have expressed support for the White House proposals [Politico’s John Bresnahan]. Separately, leaders of the House Intelligence Committee have proposed legislation that would similarly end the NSA’s bulk collection program, but would allow the government to obtain the information from telephone companies with a warrant [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].

The New York Times (Charlie Savage), Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman and Carol E. Lee) and Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) have more details on the emerging consensus to overhaul the NSA’s collection of phone call records.

The New York Times editorial, citing Jameel Jaffer’s post at Just Security, argues that “there are still important unknown details” and questions “why the president feels he needs to wait for Congress before stopping mass collection.”

And the FISC will have a new presiding judge, Judge Thomas Hogan, in May [Reuters].

Ukraine

Speaking with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Hague yesterday, President Obama said:

“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength, but out of weakness.”

Obama stated that “every one of our NATO allies has assurances that we will act in their defense against any threats.” He also expressed concern over “the further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine” and announced that he was consulting with the European Council to put in place “the framework, the architecture for additional sanctions, additional costs should Russia take this next step.” The New York Times (Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker), Wall Street Journal (Carol E. Lee and Naftali Bendavid) and Washington Post (Scott Wilson and Will Englund) provide more details.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (Matthew Dalton), European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU will support a “new set of measures” against Russia if Moscow increases pressure on Ukraine.

Ukraine has dismissed its defense minister over his handling of Russia’s invasion of Crimea [Washington Post’s Kathy Lally]. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has said that a leaked telephone conversation broadcasted by Russian state television, where she is heard urging the “wiping out” of Russians, had been manipulated [Agencies].

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that Democrats will drop their demand for reform to the IMF in the aid bill on Ukraine, “likely clearing the way for passage later this week” [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Russell Berman]. And Politico (Carrie Budoff Brown) reports that Obama will use his address in Brussels later today to strengthen ties with Europe and “put up a united front … against Russia.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that the West must take actions “that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that [Putin’s] worldview and goals … over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.” In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Anne-Marie Slaughter explores how the West “is playing into Vladi­mir Putin’s hands by treating Russia’s annexation of Crimea as the return to a world in which Russia and the United States are once again principal adversaries.”

Newt Gingrich takes a look at Putin’s speech last week and notes that “[a]ny successful American response to Putin will have to be based on a realistic understanding of his thinking and his goals” [CNN]. And John R. Schindler warns, in Politico Magazine, that “[f]urther Western denial—like we saw after the invasion of Georgia—will only encourage more Russian adventurism, with all the attendant risks of wider conflict and major war.”

Syria

U.S. officials are concerned about the use of Syria by al-Qaeda and other militant fighters as a base to recruit individuals and as a “launching pad” for future strikes against Europe and the U.S., reports the New York Times (Eric Schmitt).

The Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher) covers how the Syrian regime is “slowly solidifying control” around Damascus by making “shaky and uneasy truces born largely out of the desperation of civilians as well as some former rebels.”

The top negotiator for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Hadi Al Bahra has told The Daily Beast (Josh Rogin) that the regime’s plan to hold presidential elections in May “would kill the Geneva [peace] process itself.”

Rebel groups have mounted a second sustained attack on the area around Qardaha, the home village of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [The Guardian’s Martin Chulov].

Afghanistan

Taliban insurgents, including two suicide bombers, attacked an office of the election commission in Kabul yesterday, killing at least six people, while also launching two other attacks in other parts of the country [Washington Post’s Sayed Salahuddin]. The latest violence comes days before the presidential vote, which the Taliban have threatened to derail.

The Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov) notes that next week’s presidential election “will also determine how much power the mercurial leader [Hamid Karzai] … will retain once he leaves office.”

Other developments

The Senate Intelligence Committee has pushed back a vote on declassifying its report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program to next week [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb].

35 countries have agreed to implement the guidelines to improve nuclear security as part of a U.S.-led Nuclear Security Summit, but major nuclear powers, including Russia and China, did not sign up [Wall Street Journal’s Maarten Van Tartwijk and Carol E. Lee].

John Knefel explores the “stark contrast” between the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and the ongoing military commissions at Guantánamo Bay [Al Jazeera America].

The EU’s General Court is “proposing a major shake-up of rules that could help shield decisions about sanctions against countries such as Iran and Syria from legal challenges,” according to a document seen by the Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman and Benoît Faucon).

The Pentagon said that its work to comply with the six congressional investigations into the 2012 Benghazi attack has cost the military millions of dollars, with officials having participated in 50 congressional hearings, briefings and interviews [The Hill’s Jeremy Herb].

The Washington Post (Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamura) reports that three Secret Service agents responsible for protecting President Obama in the Netherlands this week “were sent home and put on administrative leave … after going out for a night of drinking,” according to those familiar with the incident.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan on Wednesday, at “a critical juncture” in the Middle East peace talks [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon].

North Korea test-fired two medium-range missiles, according to South Korea and the U.S., in an apparent challenge to the “rare three-way summit of its rivals Seoul, Tokyo and Washington that focused on the North’s security threat” [AP].

An Egyptian court has adjourned a second mass trial of 683 alleged supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on charges of murder, incitement of violence and sabotage [Al Jazeera]. The Associated Press details how Egypt’s mass verdicts reveal the pressure on the country’s judiciary.

Kenya has ordered all refugees in the country to return to their camps, “in a bid to end attacks by armed groups carried out in retaliation for Kenya’s intervention in neighboring Somalia” [Al Jazeera].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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