News Roundup and Notes: April 22, 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.

Drone strikes in Yemen

Three suspected al-Qaeda militants were killed in a further drone strike in southern Yemen on Monday, according to Yemeni officials [AFP]. The Yemeni Ministry has said in a statement that the drone strikes over the weekend killed at least 55 al-Qaeda militants [Associated Press]. For further analysis, check out Ryan Goodman’s post at Just Security.

The New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reports on the U.S. and Yemeni joint operation, but notes that “it [is] unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans.” White House press secretary Jay Carney has referred all questions about the strikes to the Yemeni government, and the Pentagon and CIA declined to comment. Some American officials said the drones were operated by the CIA, while others said “American Special Operations military personnel had supported the Yemeni operations on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance.”

The strikes have “brought into sharp relief divisions among [Yemen’s] rulers over how to rein in [the U.S. drones] program that they’ve long supported,” reports McClatchy DC (Adam Baron). A top Yemeni official told McClatchy last week that “[w]hen it comes to the current drone policy, there have been too many mistakes.”

Reuters (Mohamed Ghobari and Yara Bayoumy) reports that drone strikes “are unlikely to eradicate the threat [al-Qaeda] poses” as “[a] weak central government, a rivalry-ridden and poorly equipped security force, endemic poverty and corruption have made Yemen the ideal haven” for the group, according to analysts.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court has ordered the release of parts of a Justice Department memorandum providing the Obama administration’s legal justification for the 2011 drone strike in Yemen, which killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who intelligence officials say had joined al-Qaeda [New York Times’ Benjamin Weiser]. The lawsuits were filed by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ukraine

Vice President Joe Biden told Ukraine’s political leaders this morning that the U.S. supports them against “humiliating threats,” in a reference to Russia, while also encouraging them to fight corruption as they aim to rebuild the country’s government [Associated Press’ Nedra Pickler]. In a press conference, Biden said Russia must “stop talking and start acting” to defuse the Ukraine crisis [BBC]. Biden is expected to offer a new economic and energy assistance package to the interim leaders while in Kiev, reports The Hill (Justin Sink).

Russia has accused Ukraine of violating the Geneva accord reached last week [The Guardian]. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also dismissed the Obama administration’s threats of further sanctions. Lavrov said, “[b]efore giving us ultimatums … we would urgently call on our American partners to fully accept responsibility for those who they brought to power.”

Speaking at a Moscow news conference, Lavrov told reporters that “Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos,” providing “the strongest signal yet that Moscow may be laying the political groundwork for a military incursion into [Ukraine],” reports Colum Lynch [Foreign Policy’s The Cable]. The New York Times (Andrew E. Kramer), Wall Street Journal (Carol E. Lee and Lukas I. Alpert) and Washington Post (Will Englund et al.) have more details on Lavrov’s speech.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has said that the range of photographs provided by the Ukrainians and some U.S. officials “are just further evidence of the connection between Russia and the armed militants [in Ukraine].” CNN (Arwa Damon et al.) has more details.

Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth that the separatists, who are acting together with Russia in “a joint effort,” have been warned that they will be “punished severely.”

Diplomats say that pro-Russian separatists have blocked monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from entering occupied buildings [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung].

According to Western experts, the Russian military is “skillfully employing 21st-century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops,” reports the New York Times (Michael R. Gordon).

The Washington Post editorial board argues that “the only strategy with a chance of working [in Ukraine] is to follow through on the administration’s own rhetoric” on broad sanctions against the Russian banking, energy and mining sectors.

And Pavel Durov, the founder of Russian Facebook, VKontakte, announced yesterday that he had been fired and that his site was now “under the complete control” of Vladimir Putin’s two closest allies [BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder].

Intelligence directive on media contact

Steven Aftergood [Federation of American Scientists] reports that a directive issued by DNI James Clapper last month prohibits most intelligence employees from discussing “intelligence-related information” with the media, unless specifically authorized to do so. The directive, which does not distinguish between classified and unclassified matters, also requires intelligence community employees to report “unplanned or unintentional contact with the media on covered matters.”

According to a statement from DNI spokesperson Shawn Turner, Clapper ordered a review into whether there was a “consistent baseline requirement” for engagement with the media after the “damaging leaks in 2012” [Politico’s Hadas Gold and Josh Gerstein].

Guantánamo Bay

The FBI investigation that was at the center of last week’s military commission proceedings at Guantánamo Bay is not investigating the disclosure of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s commentary to The Huffington Post, according to the Special Trial Counsel’s filing [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg].

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a Yemeni Guantánamo detainee, seeking tougher judicial scrutiny of the detention of suspected terrorists at the military prison [Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr].

Syria

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the administration has “indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical–probably chlorine–in Syria this month in the opposition-dominated village of Kfar Zeita.” Psaki said the U.S. is examining whether the Syrian government was responsible, and is consulting with partners, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Sen. John McCain also responded to the new allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. McCain said:

“[The Syrian regime’s] breach of the chemical weapons agreement should surprise no one, and unless the Obama Administration is willing to force a price for such behavior, we should only expect more atrocities to come.”

Syria has announced it will hold presidential elections on June 3, a move widely criticized by the opposition and the West [BBC]. The State Department said the planned elections “undermine the Geneva framework and are a parody of democracy.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also said the elections would be incompatible with the Geneva Communiqué and would damage the prospects for a political solution to the country’s crisis [UN News Centre].

Afghanistan

Reuters (Missy Ryan and Arshad Mohammed) reports that according to officials briefed on the matter, the U.S. force in Afghanistan may be cut to less than 10,000, and possibly, even less than 5,000. The decision “reflects a belief among White House officials that Afghan security forces have evolved into a robust enough force to contain a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency.”

A senior Taliban leader detained by UAE officials has been freed and has returned to Afghanistan “to help jump-start President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the [Taliban],” reports the Washington Post (Sayed Sallahuddin).

Other developments

Two sources close to Edward Snowden told The Daily Beast (Noah Shachtman) that Snowden regretted asking Russian President Vladimir Putin about mass surveillance last week. Snowden, who “viewed the question as his first foray into criticizing Russia,” was “genuinely surprised” by the reaction it received.

The Associated Press (Lolita C. Baldor) covers how young officers are being pushed out of the Army “as the wars wind down and Pentagon budgets shrink.”

The New York Times (David E. Sanger and Mark Landler) reports on how President Obama’s “strategic shift to Asia is hobbled by pressure at home and crises abroad.” President Obama is expected to announce an agreement with the Philippines next week that would give U.S. ships and planes the most extensive access to bases there since 1992. Ahead of Obama’s Asia trip, the Wall Street Journal editorial board warns that “like Vladimir Putin, Beijing’s leaders will press their advantage against weaker powers unless America makes clear by word and deed that it will push back.”

In the most recent clash, seven rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on Monday, prompting Israeli airstrikes that hit at least one Hamas training site [New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren].

Al Jazeera reports that suicide car bombings, shootings and other attacks across Iraq yesterday have killed at least 33 people, “in a surge of violence as the country counts down to parliamentary elections.”

The South Korean Defense Ministry said it has detected “several activities” at North Korea’s nuclear test site [CNN’s Jethro Mullen and Stella Kim].

The UN has confirmed that opposition forces in South Sudan have killed “hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians” after determining their ethnicity or nationality [UN News Centre]. However, South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar said his forces were not responsible for the massacre in the town of Bentiu [Al Jazeera].

Nine people, including policemen, have been killed in two separate attacks in Pakistan’s northwest region this morning [Reuters’ Jibran Ahmed].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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