News Roundup and Notes: March 31, 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

Der Spiegel (Laura Poitras et al.) is reporting that the NSA appeared to be targeting 122 country leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, according to secret NSA documents. The documents provided by Edward Snowden also show that the NSA obtained a FISC order to monitor “Germany” in 2013, while the UK’s GCHQ infiltrated German internet firms.

The Washington Post editorial notes that “President Obama and Congress appear to be moving closer to a consensus” on how to deal with the NSA’s bulk collection program, but argues that “congressional action on this issue would be a good start and ought to be at the top of the agenda.”

The Hill (Julian Hattem) covers how Obama’s proposal to end government collection of Americans’ phone records “is expected to face a rocky path on Capitol Hill as lawmakers and pressure groups disagree on details and the scope of NSA reform.” Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein has told CNN’s “State of the Union” (Candy Crowley) that telecommunication companies have not yet agreed to hold phone data, and that a bill might be required to compel companies to do so.

The Guardian (Matthew Taylor) reports that according to a new study, firms are choosing more secure forms of storing commercially sensitive data in light of Snowden’s disclosures, “with potentially dramatic consequences for the future of the internet.”

Ukraine

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has arrived in Crimea this morning, “the most senior Russian official to visit since it was annexed from Ukraine” [BBC].

Secretary of State John Kerry said he had a “frank conversation” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last evening, during which they agreed on the “importance of finding a diplomatic solution and of simultaneously meeting the needs of the Ukrainian people.” However, Kerry stressed:

“[A]ny real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine’s borders … We believe that these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine.”

The New York Times (Michael R. Gordon and Neil Macfarquhar), Wall Street Journal (Jay Solomon and Stacy Meichtry) and Washington Post (Anne Gearan) have more details on the meeting.

In a telephone conversation this weekend, President Obama urged Vladimir Putin to “avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on [Russia’s] border with Ukraine. Obama also stated that a diplomatic path “remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Meanwhile, according to the statement issued by the Kremlin, Putin “drew Barack Obama’s attention to continued rampage of extremists … in various regions and in Kiev with impunity.” Putin also pointed to a blockade in Transnistria and stressed that “Russia stands for the fair and comprehensive settlement of the Transnistria conflict.”

The U.S. provided its first delivery of non-lethal aid to Ukraine this weekend —approximately 300,000 meals-ready-to-eat for the military. Top NATO commander General Philip Breedlove has cut short a trip to Washington and returned to Europe to deal with Russia’s “lack of transparency and … military movements across the border” [Reuters’ Phil Stewart]. And UK Defense Secretary said British forces will take part in NATO exercises in the Baltics in order to “reassure” allies [The Telegraph’s Matthew Holehouse and Damien McElroy].

Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that Russia has “no intent, no interest in crossing the border.” However, Kislyak said a pullback from Crimea is not possible as “[w]e are now in the area of the Russian Federation.”

Reuters covers how, according to UN diplomats, Russia “threatened several Eastern European and Central Asian states with retaliation” if they voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution last week. The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer reports that exclusive photographs “provide strong evidence that the massacre in the Maidan [in February] was in fact a vicious and clinical assault ordered by the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime and executed by its arch loyalists.” And The Hill (Jeremy Herb) covers how Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is “just the latest complication in the Obama administration’s plans to rebalance the military toward Asia to counter China.”

The Economist explores the “new propaganda war” underpinning the Kremlin’s clash with the West. According to The Economist, “patriotic hysteria and jingoism may have reached such levels that any de-escalation by Mr Putin would seem like a defeat.” In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Masha Gessen explains how “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world.” And in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Peter Rosen writes that “Americans must help others defend themselves against tyranny because it is in our national interest to do so.”

Military justice

A former Guantánamo prison camp guard is being allowed to “quit the Army rather than face a sex-assault trial,” reports the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg.

The Washington Post (Michael Biesecker and Emery P. Dalesio) covers the role of the military’s special victims counsel in helping sexual assault victims navigate the military justice system.

A former Air Force training instructor has been sentenced to eight months in prison for abusive behavior toward recruits [AP].

Israel-Palestine

Israel has reportedly offered Palestine a proposal aimed at extending negotiations, after Israel failed to free 26 Palestinian prisoners on Saturday, which threatened to collapse the peace process [Al Jazeera]. The Washington Post (William Booth and Ruth Eglash) reports that Palestinians are considering their options in the event of a complete breakdown of the negotiations, which “range from urging international boycotts against Israel to holding mass protests to unilaterally seeking more recognition at the United Nations.”

Other developments

Reuters (Jack Kim) reports that North and South Korea exchanged artillery rounds into the sea this morning, “but the exercise appeared to be more saber rattling from Pyongyang rather than the start of a military standoff.”

The Associated Press is reporting that the Senate torture report concludes that the CIA’s interrogation methods, including waterboarding, “provided no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden,” according to congressional aides and outside experts familiar with the investigation.

The White House has issued a fact sheet outlining how the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are working together on “a number of critical bilateral and regional issues.”

Military officials are investigating a U.S. Marine, who was on assignment for President Obama’s trip to the Netherlands last week, after witnesses said he was speaking in detail about his role and passing around his government security badge during a night of drinking [Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig et al.].

The National Journal’s Sara Sorcher considers who is likely to replace Mike Rogers as chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

According to a new poll, “more than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight … in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans” [Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran].

The Wall Street Journal (James Hookway) reports that the Philippines has filed an arbitration case with the UN “over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, raising the ante in a long-running dispute over who owns what in the strategic, energy-rich waters.”

Taliban militants attacked Afghanistan’s election commission headquarters in Kabul this weekend, only a week before the country’s presidential election [CNN’s Qadir Sediqi and Ben Brumfield]. In further disruption, Taliban gunmen have abducted an Afghan candidate running for a seat in a provincial council along with seven others [Al Jazeera].

Egypt will hold its presidential election on May 26 and 27 [NPR’s Leila Fadel]. And the Washington Post editorial argues that if the Obama administration “really supports ‘democratic governance’ in Egypt, its only reasonable course is to recognize that Gen. Sissi is not delivering it.”

Al Jazeera America reports that Syrian forces have taken control of two villages near the Lebanese border, according to state media, “helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad secure the strategic road connecting Damascus with Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.”

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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