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News Roundup and Notes: June 5, 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.

American prisoner exchange

The Obama administration delivered a classified briefing to senators last evening on the deal that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees formerly held at Guantánamo Bay [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Erik Wasson; Politico’s Burgess Everett and Manu Raju]. Senators were shown a video of Bergdahl in apparent deteriorated health. However, the briefing failed to win over critics of the prisoner swap, with many lawmakers stating they remained unsatisfied by the administration’s explanations.

The Associated Press (Bradley Cooper and Donna Cassata) covers how the deal with the Taliban has sparked renewed opposition in Congress to closing Guantánamo. In particular, Sen. Lindsey Graham warned yesterday that Republican lawmakers would call for Obama’s impeachment if any more Guantánamo detainees were released without congressional approval [The Hill’s Alexander Bolton].

According to former officials and military documents, the military’s search for Bergdahl when he first disappeared in 2009 was hampered by false tips that led U.S. troops into dangerous traps [Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum et al.]. And some Afghan villagers who spotted Bergdahl in 2009 have told the Washington Post (Kevin Sieff) that he appeared to be intentionally heading toward Taliban strongholds.

Amid increasing speculation and reports over Bergdahl’s disappearance, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he “do[es] not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl” and asked critics to wait for the Army’s full review to completed [Reuters].

Kimberly Dozier [The Daily Beast] reports that the Pentagon could not carry out a rescue mission for Bergdahl as he was being repeatedly moved by the Taliban, and the U.S. would have had to target multiple hideouts simultaneously, according to senior U.S. officials.

The New York Times (Mark Mazzetti et al.) details the sense of “urgency and opportunity” within the administration that led to the deal with the Taliban.

Jess Bravin [Wall Street Journal] considers whether Obama exceeded his legal authority in authorizing the prisoner exchange.

Politico (Edward-Isaac Dovere and Carrie Budoff Brown) reports that according to White House aides, the intense criticism of the deal, particularly over Bergdahl’s initial disappearance, is an example of Republicans “complaining about something just because Obama was the one to do it.”

Matthew Rosenberg [New York Times] explores how the Taliban’s video, showing the handover of Bergdahl to American forces, marks the group’s effort “to improve their publicity machine—one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.”

Bergdahl’s hometown has canceled plans for a welcome-home celebration for the American soldier, citing security concerns [Associated Press].

Meanwhile, local Afghan villagers have reacted with fear to the release of the five Taliban leaders, one of whom led a scorched earth offensive in the village of Sheykhan in 1999 [Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge].

The Wall Street Journal editorial board argues that the prisoner swap highlights how Obama “treats all of foreign policy as if it’s merely part of his domestic political calculus.”

Stephen Saideman [The Globe and Mail] covers the five points that the critics of the prisoner exchange are ignoring, and argues that the swap “is quite normal business-as-usual in the end stages of a war/intervention.”

And former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey, writing in the Washington Post, comments on how the seeds for this “ghastly transaction” were “sown a long time ago: on the second and third days of President Obama’s first term.”

Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology

Germany’s federal prosecutor has announced a formal investigation into the NSA’s alleged monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, reversing last week’s decision that sparked significant domestic criticism [Deutsche Welle].

The Hill (Julian Hattem) reports that top technology firms, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, are calling on the Senate to scrap the compromised version of the USA Freedom Act, which they argue “could permit bulk collection of Internet ‘metadata.’”

Ukraine

President Obama marked the 25th anniversary of Poland’s Freedom Day by pledging the U.S.’s “unwavering commitment” to the security of Poland and Eastern Europe [Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee and Julian E. Barnes].

Peter Baker [New York Times] reports on the obstacles in the way of Obama’s plans to, among other things, convince Western allies to remain tough on Russia.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called on NATO allies to dedicate more money to the alliance’s budget, while stating that Russia’s actions “constitute the most significant and direct challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War.”

At yesterday’s meeting, the G-7 leaders condemned Russia’s “continuing violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and warned that the group was “ready to intensify targeted sanctions and to implement significant additional restrictive measures to impose further costs on Russia should events so require.

Reuters (Alissa De Carbonnel) reports on the fighting between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has forced residents to flee from Slaviansk.

And the Washington Post editorial board argues that the West “shows no willingness to defend [Ukraine’s] freedom against Russia,” as Russian-backed rebels continue to battle against Ukrainian forces.

Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won the presidential elections as expected, which Secretary of State John Kerry denounced as “meaningless” [Al Jazeera].

Federal prosecutors in Germany have brought terrorism charges against three individuals over their alleged involvement in a radical Islamic rebel group in Syria [New York Times’ Melissa Eddy].

Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a further $290 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance to those affected by Syria’s civil war.

As the June 30 deadline for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons approaches, OPCW-UN Joint Mission chief Sigrid Kaag emphasized the “very critical” need to remove the remaining 7.2 percent of Syria’s stockpile, but acknowledged that the deadline would not be met.

Afghanistan withdrawal

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, defended the administration’s plan to withdraw all troops from the country by 2016, arguing that it is not a withdrawal, but “a transition” [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes and Naftali Bendavid; Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung]. Dunford also said that the U.S. has asked allies to contribute troops to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, former military and civilian officials have added to the criticism of Obama’s plan, which they fear is too rigid and could curb efforts to adequately train domestic security forces [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon].

A police chief and two officers were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan this morning, while two army officers were killed in a separate shooting attack [Associated Press].

Other developments

A new RAND report, authored by Seth G. Jones, finds an increase in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters since 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Reacting to Obama’s West Point commencement address last week, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has told his country’s political and military leaders that America has “renounced the idea of any military actions” [New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink].

Haaretz’ Barak Ravid covers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “diplomatic meltdown” as a series of world powers stepped up to recognize the new Palestinian unity government. In an apparent response to the newly formed Palestinian government, Israel announced plans to build 1,500 new settlement homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem [Al Jazeera].

Reuters (Susan Cornwell and David Lawder) covers the “rare bipartisan talks” between U.S. lawmakers aimed at addressing the problems with health care for veterans.

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About the Author

is Associate Editor at Just Security. Follow her on Twitter @RParekh88.