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News Roundup and Notes: February 10, 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

First Look Media’s The Intercept (Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald) details the NSA’s “secret role in the U.S. assassination program.” According to a former drone operator and documents obtained from Edward Snowden, the NSA is “using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.”

The New York Times (David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt) reports that Snowden gained access to top secret documents by using “inexpensive and widely available software to ‘scrape’ the National Security Agency’s networks,” according to intelligence officials investigating the leaks. Investigators have found that Snowden’s use of “web crawler” software was not sophisticated, and should have been easily detected.

NBC News (Matthew Cole et al.) reported on Friday that a secret division of British spy agency, GCHQ “developed ‘dirty tricks’ for use against nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers.” According to documents obtained from Snowden, the methods included “releasing computer viruses, spying on journalists and diplomats, jamming phones and computers, and using sex to lure targets into ‘honey traps.’”

The NSA is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ phone call records, according to current and former U.S. officials, due to “an inability to keep pace with the explosion in cellphone use” [Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]. In 2006, the NSA was collecting “closer to 100” percent of Americans’ phone records.

Rep. Peter King told CBS’s “Face the Nation” (Bob Schieffer) that the NSA was “so concerned about outside forces penetrating their system, that they just did not take the proper precautions internally.” King said that, due to changes, Snowden would not have been able to obtain the same information today.

The Wall Street Journal (Matthew Karnitschnig) covers how new reports of NSA spying in European media are “undermining U.S. efforts to move beyond the affair and has thrown plans for a trans-Atlantic trade agreement into question just weeks before talks are scheduled to resume.”

The CIA has confirmed that it is bound to follow federal legislation barring the collection of financial information and hacking into government data networks [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman].

Writing in Al Jazeera America, Matthew Harwood uses the “terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield” to explore the danger of government having easy access to “voluminous data we produce every day: It can imply guilt where there is none.”

Drones

The UK’s Ministry of Defence has revealed that the British air force has launched at least 39 strikes against suspected Taliban fighters using U.S. drones based in Afghanistan [The Guardian’s Nick Hopkins].

The Washington Post (Abigail Hauslohner) covers the rising public outrage in Yemen over U.S drone strikes in the country, “where many people, including government officials, argue that the attacks increase sympathy for al-Qaeda.”

Syria

The second round of UN-brokered peace talks is due to begin in Geneva today, when chief mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will hold separate talks with each side [AFP].

Six hundred people have now been evacuated from Homs, despite mortar attacks and shooting during yesterday’s UN-led evacuation mission [Al Jazeera]. The regime and rebels have extended the ceasefire for another three days, which may allow more civilians to be rescued.

According to reports on the ground, a commander and “military mastermind” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been killed following clashes with rival rebel group, al-Nusrah Front in eastern Syria [Al Alam].

Reuters (Anthony Deutsch) covers how the delays in the implementation of the Syrian chemical weapons deal are testing the limits of the U.S.-Russian deal.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that “Syria has become a matter of homeland security” as Western fighters recruited by extremists could pose a threat upon their return home.

Afghanistan

Al Jazeera (Osama Bin Javaid) reports that the Taliban has released a video, which appears to show the group planning and executing an attack on the CIA compound in Afghanistan last year. According to experts, the footage “indicates Taliban has evolved into [a] group capable of sophisticated attacks.”

According to a new UN report, civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by 14% last year, which was the worst year since 2009 with regards to the number of women and children killed or injured during the conflict [UN News Centre].

Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said yesterday that Iran has agreed to cooperate with an investigation into whether it had previously worked on designing an atomic weapon [Reuters’ Fredrik Dahl and Mehrdad Balali]. Iran has agreed to take seven practical measures by May 15, under a November transparency deal with the IAEA.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian naval commander has told state media that the country has sent several warships to the Atlantic Ocean, close to U.S. maritime borders for the first time [AP]. And Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told state media that contrary to U.S. claims, the U.S. “wouldn’t hesitate a moment” to overthrow the current Iranian leadership [The Hill’s Megan R. Wilson].

Russia

House Homeland Security Committee chair Michael McCaul said on Fox News Sunday (Chris Wallace) that “there is a higher degree probability something … will detonate” during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers told ABC’s “This Week” (Martha Raddatz) that the “gates and guns portion” of the Sochi security “is really unparalleled for an Olympic games.”

And U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said, in the context of Russian interception, “There is no doubt that I am a primary subject of interest for them. And from time to time, they have also leaked conversations I have that I thought were private” [NBC's “Meet the Press”’ David Gregory].

Other developments

In the Washington Post, Barack Obama and French President François Hollande outline the “renewed alliance” between the two countries on important issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to counter-terrorism efforts. Hollande arrives in the U.S. today for a two-day state visit [Reuters’ Steve Holland].

An AP (Yuri Kageyama and Richard Lardner) report, based on more than 1,000 records obtained through FOIA requests, provides a “disturbing picture” of how senior American officers prosecute and punish troops accused of sex crimes. The handling of complaints “verged on the chaotic, with seemingly strong cases often reduced to lesser charges.”

The State Department’s envoy to Guantánamo, Clifford Sloan has said that the U.S. is in talks with a wide range of countries to move “as aggressively as we can” in speeding up the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners [Reuters' Matt Spetalnick].

State Department contractor, Stephen Kim has pleaded guilty to the count of disclosing national defense information to Fox News reporter James Rosen [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

The Hill (Jeremy Herb) covers how lawmakers are “trying to strong-arm the Pentagon into saving favored programs and pet projects ahead of the release of its 2015 budget next month.”

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Seoul, Beijing, Jakarta, and Abu Dhabi this week, during which he will address “a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.”

The ICC has opened a preliminary examination into the new situation in the Central African Republic. On the ground, religious violence and looting in Bangui led to the death of at least nine people this weekend [Al Jazeera].

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the EU and the U.S. to present a united approach on Ukraine, and restated that Germany would only consider sanctions if other peaceful options failed [Wall Street Journal’s Andrea Thomas].

Egyptian authorities have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of forming a military wing to attack security forces in the country’s south [AP].

North Korea has rescinded an invitation for a senior U.S. official to visit Pyongyang to seek the release of U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae [Reuters’ David Brunnstrom].

The Israeli military said that it carried out an airstrike on Sunday against a militant in Gaza responsible for firing rockets into Israel [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]. And The Economist covers how Israeli politicians “sound rattled” as the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel “is turning mainstream.”

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